By Erica C. Barnett
The Seattle Public Library has advised library staff not to carry or use naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug sold under the brand name Narcan. As a matter of policy, the library does not stock Narcan or train workers to use it.
In an email to library staff last week, a representative from the union that represents most library employees, AFSCME 2083, wrote that “the City has been very clear that they believe Good Samaritan protections do not apply to public employees administering Narcan. In light of that liability concern, we have now been informed that any employees who administer Narcan on duty may be subject to discipline, unless they are explicitly directed to do so.”
“While these employer directives are in effect—in particular the new directive NOT to administer Narcan—Local 2083 cannot support member administration of Narcan on the job,” the email continued.
The union, which did not respond to a request for comment, sent the email to its members after an unidentified library staffer informed their boss that they were bringing Narcan to work. The drug, most commonly administered as a nasal spray, temporarily reverses the effects of an opiate overdose by blocking the effects of the opiate and causing an overdose victim to start breathing again.
“[The city attorney’s] legal guidance is that a staff member, who is in a paid capacity as Library employee, is likely not covered by the law and would subsequently expose themselves and the Library to liability for injury or death resulting from inappropriately administering Narcan.”—Seattle Public Library spokeswoman
Washington State’s original Good Samaritan law, adopted in 1975 and amended several times since, says that “Any person, including but not limited to a volunteer provider of emergency or medical services, who without compensation or the expectation of compensation renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency … shall not be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission in the rendering of such emergency care.”
A separate law adopted in 2015 created a “standing order” allowing “any person or entity” to obtain a prescription for opiate reversal medication, such as Narcan, and use it for overdose reversal without threat of criminal or civil liability for administering overdose-reversal drugs or for any outcome that happen as as result.
A spokeswoman for the Seattle Public Library, Elisa Murray, said the library asked the City Attorney’s Office if library workers would be protected by the Good Samaritan laws. “Their legal guidance is that a staff member, who is in a paid capacity as Library employee, is likely not covered by the law and would subsequently expose themselves and the Library to liability for injury or death resulting from inappropriately administering Narcan.” Murray said the initial advice came from former city attorney Pete Holmes’ office and was subsequently confirmed by the office of current City Attorney Ann Daviso
“Bringing medicine to the workplace with the intent to administer it while working is outside of a staff member’s assigned work duties and against the Library’s direction related to Narcan,” Murray continued. The library has no plans to train staffers to use Narcan or stock the drug at library branches, “based on the Seattle Fire Department’s medical support expertise and response times.” In other words, it’s up to the Fire Department, which—like the police department—is facing staffing shortages, to respond to overdose calls on time.
The library gave a similar explanation for its decision not to stock naloxone back in 2020, when then-mayor Jenny Durkan handed out hundreds of naloxone kits to local businesses and schools in response to an uptick in overdoses from fentanyl, an opiate that is many times more potent than heroin. On Tuesday, the King County Council declared fentanyl a public health crisis. Last year, the county medical examiner confirmed that nearly 400 overdose deaths involved fentanyl; so far this year, the number of confirmed fentanyl deaths is 272. Overall, opiates have been implicated in nearly 450 deaths this year.
The Seattle Public School District stocks naloxone at every school and trains school nurses, security staff, and school administrators in how to administer the drug.
As public agencies go, SPL is in some ways an outlier. Staff at other public agencies in Seattle carry naloxone, as do other public libraries around the country, including Everett’s public library system.
For example, the Seattle Public School District stocks naloxone at every school, according to SPS prevention and intervention manager Lisa Davidson. The district also trains school nurses, security staff, and school administrators—along with anyone else who wants training—in overdose response. Most schools have multiple “designated trained responders,” according to Davidson, and district policy allows individual employees to get their own prescriptions for naloxone and use it as long as they’ve been trained to do so.
The school district’s policy also notes that under the state’s “standing order” law, “a person who possesses, stores, distributes, or administers an opioid overdose reversal medication is not subject to criminal or civil liability or disciplinary action if they acted in good faith and with reasonable care.”
The King County Library System’s naloxone policy, however, is similar to Seattle’s: “staff are not permitted to administer Narcan,” , KCLS spokeswoman Sarah Thomas said, and are supposed to call 911 if they see a patron in medical distress “KCLS does not have a policy on Narcan use,” Thomas said.
Seattle Parks Department staff, in contrast, do carry Narcan; according to department spokeswoman Rachel Schulkin, park rangers and park “concierges,” who interact directly with the public, keep the drug on hand, “and it is available in many of our recreation facilities for staff or the public to use if needed.”
Although there are other ways to counteract an overdose, including rescue breathing followed by oxygen, naloxone is the simplest: You just rip open the package and squirt the drug into one of the person’s nostrils.
The library does not keep track of how often branch staffers call 911 because of a suspected overdose. We’ve requested this information from the fire department and will update this post when we receive it. This year so far, emergency medical responders have been called to the Central library branch in downtown Seattle 42 times; to the Lake City branch 13 times; and to the Capitol Hill branch eight times, according to public fire department data.