Amid Rising Fentanyl Deaths, Seattle Libraries Prohibit Overdose Reversal Drug

Public naloxone rescue kit in Boston, MA
Public naloxone rescue kit in Boston, MA

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 Davison.

“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.

20 thoughts on “Amid Rising Fentanyl Deaths, Seattle Libraries Prohibit Overdose Reversal Drug”

  1. lmao at the concern trolls in the comments wringing their hands about overworked librarians. Where is your concern about library staff when it comes to things like wages and staffing levels, hm? Funny how concerns about library staff only come up when it comes to dirty homeless druggies.

    1. “Concern trolls?” LOL! That’s a new one. Look, addiction and homelessness are huge problems in Seattle. It’s time Mayor Bruce and the rest of City Council to come up with a realistic plan with an actual budget. Right now the city government is more than happy to drop this problem in lap of the Public Schools, the Public Library, the Parks Department, small business owners and whoever else gets caught in the crossfire.

      Right now the City government is going to raid the “Jump Start Tax” fund, money that’s designed to help with homelessness, to make up shortfalls in the City budget…. because of COVID, or so they say. The truth is the City hasn’t had a realistic budget in 30 years. There’s always going to be a shortfall because of something… and much of that Jumpstart money is never going to make it help the homeless. And the same “budget shortfall” that drains money out the Jump Start fund is going to prevent all city librarians from getting a raise the next 2-3 years. How convenient for City Council.

  2. Thanks for bringing light to this. And to anyone who thinks narcan shouldn’t be added to library workers’ plates: thank you for your concern about our strained workload but overdose is already on our plates; it is the reality we face working with a wide variety of patrons that includes drug users, and we need to be given the OPTION (not the requirement) to step in and not allow our patrons die in front of us as we wait for medics (who mostly come in time but sometimes can’t). If you actually want to support library workers, advocate for more staff and better pay, for admin to actually listen to our concerns about this issue, and for the city to have better resources and more compassion for unhoused people and drug users such as creating safe consumption sites and ending sweeps!!!

    1. Hello Librarian! thanks for dropping by and voicing your opinion, it’s important. Thank you.

      The truth about the City government and homelessness is the government has been avoiding having any real policy and spending any real money to solve the problem for decades. Bring up the subject to any pol in town and the answer is always the same. Seattle needs federal money! Seattle needs the County to chip in! It’s not our fault! Harrell is absolutely the same as the mayors before him… he will not take the bull by the horns here.

      The weak Seattle response is to farm out the homeless problem to non-profits and social service workers. Outfits like LIHI and the like don’t bother to even pay a living wage to poor bastards who work for them. I’m pretty sure hiring homeless babysitters for $20 an hour isn’t a solution.

      In Harrell’s mind, librarians, teachers, park workers, any lower level city worker who deals with the public now is a homeless services provider…. plus whatever their real job happens to be. This is bullshit. How about the City hire a professional staff and fund a bonafide plan?

      I have a question for you. What happens when the number of drug fueled problems at the library double from what they are now? I love the library and have friends in the “industry” if you can call it that, but everybody has a breaking point. Pretty sure Mayor Bruce isn’t much of a patron so what does he care if the homeless overwhelm our libraries? He’s always looking for suckers to carry water for him.

      The bottom line is, if librarians and teachers don’t stand up to the City government now on issues of drugs abuse and homelessness, they’ll have nobody to blame when the problem gets worse.

  3. Oh Jen,
    I’ve worked in homelessness too long to give your “half the folks i’ve talked to” statement any credence. Over the years, the great majority of homeless clients that i’ve assessed, do not come from Seattle (even though they often list the Compass Center, where they can receive mail, as their last known address). Seems homeless providers seem to be OK geographically misrepresenting where their clients come from, and their readiness for independent living. Furthermore, the ever so poplular Housing First Model is not a one size fits all solution for every unsheltered person. Here in Seattle, The Hobson House model is very successful; however, it targets homeless elderly and medically fragile residents, who are pretty much too feeble to be problematic to neighbors and staff. The majority of chronically homeless that i have assessed have unaddressed ongoing behavior issues, unsuitable for independent living. Seldom will family, or friends offer a couch a room to an unsheltered acquaintance, if the unsheltered individual has a history of abuse, theft, or gross inappropriateness. Let’s try for some reality please!

  4. Librarian here: I don’t think the expectation is that library staff HAVE to use narcan, but I would really like the option to do so, as I would prefer not to watch someone die while I stand by helplessly. This isn’t theoretical; I’ve seen several overdoses in my ten years working at the library.

    1. I understand your point of view and NARCAN isn’t hard to get, so if you want to try to save somebody’s life, go right ahead. I doubt you’re going to lose you job over it. But dealing with overdoses isn’t in the job description of a Seattle librarian. If you call 911, you did your job.

      I was a volunteer tutor at a Seattle area high school for over 10 years. About 5 years into my run, there was a huge push embed a lot of social services into the school to help struggling families. Overall it was a wonderful idea. The problem was there was this expectation that teachers to do a whole lot more social work along with teaching. There was an “old guard” who hated the idea… and a bunch of new hires who were all in. The old math teacher I mostly worked with told me flat out…. the new teachers would all burn out and quit after a few years, and 4 years after that the school had over 25 teacher turnovers.

      Look, Seattle needs to come with a real plan for addicts and fund the damn thing. Using teachers, librarians, park workers, or other city employees as some sort of ad hoc rescue team is crazy,

    2. If the staffer can give the medication to another bystander who IS COVERED BY GOOD SAMARITAN LAWS, is that a solution?
      Aren’t there laws about “failure to render assistance” as well?
      Staff is caught in the middle.

  5. Well this is a horrible decision that will likely lead to deaths in the future. But hey, CYA is apparently more important than human life these days.

  6. I wonder if a family of an overdose victim might sue the library over this policy. It should be up to each individual whether or not to carry/use narcan.

    1. I mean maybe all of us should carry Narcan? So we don’t get sued for not helping out with an OD? Is this really the expectation now?

  7. Librarians: another female dominated industry in which folks expect them to be moms to everyone. These professionals have masters degrees in information science and are kind enough to dabble in social work as it is. I don’t fault the decision to keep this task off their plate.

    1. Many of the homeless are in the late stages of addiction. They are homeless because they have burned though all the good will and charity of their friends and family. Nobody they know wants to deal with them anymore, so they live in a tent and get high at the public library. It’s sad, but we’re talking about real dead enders here who are going to die pretty soon with out professional help, NARCAN or not.

      Why on earth are librarians supposed to deal with this? Call 911, let the professionals do the job our taxes pay them to do. Get the paramedics and police involved, see if the addict has in outstanding warrants, drag them off to a hospital, jail, drug treatment, whatever it takes to give them a shot of getting clean.

      1. So if someone’s heart fails or they have a diabetic issue, they shouldn’t do first aid then either? Because clogged arteries and diabetes, we’re blaming those on people too, right?

        And most aren’t homeless because of the reasons you listed. A good chunk more than half the folks I’ve talked to didn’t do these drugs before they lost their job, housing, and/or had a major medical issue.

      2. How do you know it’s “many of the homeless?” There are no stats on that and unless you are on the ground with all the people and it seems like a gross generalization meant to only demean people without traditional homes.

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