Calls to train US librarians to deal with drug overdose

The opioid epidemic is reshaping life in America, including at the local public library, where librarians are considering whether to carry naloxone to battle overdoses.
The opioid epidemic is reshaping life in America, including at the local public library, where librarians are considering whether to carry naloxone to battle overdoses. PHOTO: REUTERS

NEW YORK • Want to borrow books about drug smugglers and addiction pitfalls? The staff in New York state's libraries can recommend titles, but now find themselves pondering whether to turn a new page in their job scope.

Take the case of the director of the public library in Middletown who calls his assistant and security guard "Starsky and Hutch" - the undercover cop characters in the hit 1970s television show.

They have been trained to spot signs of drug overdose in library patrons - paleness and shortness of breath when it is heroin; sudden collapse when it is fentanyl - and administer the drug naloxone.

The opioid epidemic is reshaping life in America, including at the local public library, where librarians are considering whether to carry naloxone to battle overdoses.

The opioid crisis killed about 64,000 people in the United States in 2016.

In New York state, library workers describe finding used syringes and glassine envelopes in doorways and patrons slumped over in bathrooms.

In Albany, libraries have started to keep files on some patrons and temporarily ban those who overdose. In White Plains, a man was arrested last year for selling heroin out of a library bathroom.

But the crisis has also ignited debate about whether librarians, like police officers and emergency medical technicians (EMTs), should administer naloxone.

"It's a perfect example of how, time and time again, the government turns to libraries to step up and fill in," said Mr Jeremy Johannesen, executive director of the New York Library Association, noting that libraries distribute tax forms, for example.

"Librarians are routinely ready to step up and meet the needs of the community," he added. "(But administering naloxone) definitely raises the bar."

Ms Christian Zabriskie, director of a non-profit advocacy group called Urban Librarians Unite, said the group supported the move as a first step, but understood the reservations expressed by some librarians.

"It's like, 'Geez, can I just give people a mystery (novel)? Can I just help kids read?' If you wanted to be an EMT, you would have been an EMT," she noted.

At libraries big and small, directors are weighing the potential consequences of carrying naloxone.

Ms Bambi Pedu, director of the library in Lake Placid, worried that drug addicts would start to target the small-town library if they knew it stocked naloxone. "You're opening a can of worms," she said.

In Albany's libraries, drug use is already happening, which comes with its own issues, said Mr Scott Jarzombek, executive director of the state capital's seven-library system.

"We see people come in, they go straight to the bathroom stalls."

The library system changed its bathroom policy to require people to show identification, after a patron died in one branch.

But he had opposed asking staff to train to use naloxone, until he recently watched a woman revive a companion in a bathroom.

"Seeing it happen made me think, maybe we should start training our staff and having the conversation about naloxone," he added. "As great as our first responders are, they might not be able to get here in time."

Director Matt Pfisterer, in Middletown, keeps naloxone in his office, which is outfitted with monitors showing surveillance footage of the premises.

If patrons know that librarians are on alert for overdoses, he said: "My biggest fear is that people will stop coming to the library."

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2018, with the headline 'Calls to train US librarians to deal with drug overdose'. Print Edition | Subscribe