Amid an epidemic of opioid deaths, Arkansas school nurses are being equipped with an antidote that can reverse overdoses. During a ceremony Tuesday at the state Capitol, Gov. Asa Hutchinson presented several nurses with naloxone kits, saying they will provide an "important lifesaving capability for our schools."
The Arkansas School Safety Commission recommended providing the medication and training on how to administer it in its final report released in December. Most of the commission’s work focused on how schools could prepare for violent incidents like an active shooter, but providing the antidote was another aspect of safety that the commission felt was important.
The governor noted that a federal government survey recently ranked Arkansas as the highest state nationwide in the percentage of students, grades nine through 12, who had taken pain medication without a prescription. Hutchinson had previously served as the administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration under President George W. Bush and said preparing for the likelihood of overdoses is a notable change in how officials think about drug abuse.
"This is a technique with naloxone kits that would not have been considered in the ‘80s, even in the ‘90s, and probably even in the 2000s. Things have changed," Hutchinson said. "We recognize how opioid abuse has overtaken so many young people either through overprescribing [by doctors] or their own abuse, but the priority has to be in saving lives first and then changing behavior."
He said the $100,000 cost for naloxone, which is also known by the brand name Narcan, was being covered by a federal grant. In recent years law enforcement officers have also been equipped and trained in how to use naloxone.
State Drug Director Kirk Lane echoed the governor’s thoughts about the importance of the antidote, saying three overdoses had occurred over the last year at Arkansas high schools. Each of the 1,100 kits include two nasal spray doses of naloxone, nitrile gloves and a CPR mask.
"It enables life. It enables someone to breathe during an opioid overdose, and if people are alive and if people are in need of help, it enables a chance of a second chance of recovery, and that’s so important," Lane said.
But not all schools in the state have a full-time nurse on staff, which has been a concern of state Rep. Julie Mayberry. The Republican, who represents parts of Saline and Pulaski counties, has unsuccessfully pushed bills in recent legislative sessions that would require each school to have a nurse.
Regarding naloxone, she said schools that don’t have a nurse could be without a trained official who could immediately administer it when needed.
"We want to make sure that every school has equal access to this, and the way to do that is to make sure that we have a school nurse on every campus," Mulberry said after the ceremony.
Adequate funding is provided by the state, she said, but local officials often use it for other purposes.
"We allocate a certain amount that legislatively we say this is what’s needed to fund for school nurses. The school districts will use that money in other ways and the priority does not seem to be school nurses," Mulberry said.
But recent data has been encouraging, she said. In the school year that just wrapped up, she said districts and charter schools reported employing 901 full-time nurses. That compares to 746 in the school year that began in the fall of 2012.
Mulberry said having part-time nurses who are only on a campus during certain hours or on certain days isn’t enough because no one can predict when a medical emergency will occur.