In Reversal, Library Will Allow Staff to Use Narcan on a Voluntary Basis

Diagram showing how to administer Narcan to an overdosing personBy Erica C. Barnett

In a sudden reversal of longstanding policy (and after three years of dogged coverage by PubliCola), the Seattle Public Library announced Wednesday that it will stock its 26 library branches with Narcan (naloxone), a nasal spray that can reverse opiate overdoses. Each branch will get one two-dose kit of Narcan, and the downtown branch will get one for each floor, with a few left over for later distribution, a library spokeswoman told PubliCola.

Library staff who want to administer Narcan if someone overdoses will be able to go through voluntary training in how to administer the drug. Untrained staffers won’t be allowed to give the drug, according to the library’s announcement, meaning that if someone overdoses at a library with no trained staff, “there is no guarantee that a patron who overdoses on Library grounds will receive naloxone.”

This policy contrasts with other Seattle departments. Frontline Seattle parks workers, such as lifeguards, parks concierges, and park rangers, all carry Narcan and can use it without special training. Other library systems also supply Narcan to workers and the public. In Chicago, for example, all library staff are trained to use Narcan and the library distributes kits for free to anyone who wants one.

The library spokeswoman said she could not provide any details about why the department changed its policy. A blog post announcing the change said only that “over the last few months,” the library went through “a careful review process, which included updated guidance on liability from the City Attorney’s Office and an examination of other City departments’ practices.” We have reached out to City Attorney Ann Davison’s office for more information on the change.

In July, as we exclusively reported, a staffer asked if it would be okay for him to carry Narcan at work. At the time, the library said it had been advised by the city attorney’s office that employees who administered the drug would be unprotected by the both state’s Good Samaritan law, which protects people who voluntarily render emergency care, and a separate law protecting Washington residents from liability specifically for administering Narcan. Any library employee who used Narcan to try to reverse an overdose, a union representative told staffers in an email, could be subject to discipline.

A spokeswoman for the library said that the library is “requesting that staff not use their own supply of Narcan while at work during this interim period” before staffers have gone through training. “After staff volunteers are trained, we may revisit that.” The spokeswoman said the library is “in conversations about training with several organizations.”

Previously, the library had varying reasons for not stocking Narcan, which works by restoring breathing in an overdosing person. Back in 2020, a library spokeswoman told PubliCola that putting Narcan in libraries would require bargaining with the library union, for example.

People die of opiate overdoses when they stop breathing, and emergency responders often prefer to perform rescue breathing or provide oxygen to an overdosing person because naloxone can send people into rapid withdrawal, an extremely unpleasant side effect that, in practice, sometimes leads people to refuse additional care. Narcan, however, is extremely simple to administer—you squirt it into one nostril—and can save a person’s life during the period after they stop breathing but before medics arrive.

According to the King County Department of Public Health, there have been at least 42 likely overdoses in or outside public libraries in King County since 2019, including 16 inside library branches. Since 2017, at least eight people have died of drug-related causes at libraries in King County, half of them in Seattle.

6 thoughts on “In Reversal, Library Will Allow Staff to Use Narcan on a Voluntary Basis”

  1. I suspect this will be coercive in practice and don’t support this change. Library workers are not hired to be drug treatment providers and, as this post notes, responses to Narcan can be quite violent at times because it sends the body into immediate drug withdrawal; that’s how it restores breathing. Our libraries should not become another place non-addicted people have to avoid.

    1. We deal with violence every day, drug-related or not. Training helps mitigate risk of a negative reaction when administering the drug. I’d much rather deal with a patron who I know may become volatile (in the case of an intense reaction to Narcan) and take steps to protect myself in the moments after giving the drug than someone who comes swinging out of nowhere (and that does happen too).

      We’re already dealing with drugs in the library. This is one more tool that we can use while doing what we need to anyway, which is calling 911. When we call medics we don’t just go back to our desks and keep working, we wait until they get there, we talk to security, we manage other patrons who may be gathering around or asking questions. An overdose is disruptive practically and emotionally and I would rather have more tools to manage the situation.

      I would love for the city to invest in safe places for drug users to get the support and care they need. Libraries can’t do that work, but since it’s the only free place for people to go when they have nowhere else, I would at least like the tools to be able to do what has become my job while we advocate for better options.

      1. I respect your feelings and think I understand them. My comment was directed more toward any of your coworkers who may not share your feelings and may feel coerced to go along with the training and even administering the drugs even though it is said to be voluntary. Maybe that won’t happen. You’re in a better position to speculate than I am. I am sorry you’re having to deal with these issues; I think it’s wrong.

        As a library user and taxpayer, I resent the loss of libraries as safe and peaceful places whether its drug users or mentally impaired people. I view the current strategies as enabling, and as someone who has had addicted family members, I believe that’s the wrong approach. I understand not everyone shares my perspective and I respect their right to differ, but am not convinced by what I’ve seen and heard so far.

        I think with all the millions and millions we’re throwing at this issue, we are getting pretty much nothing for our money but places to strike off the list of where we feel safe to go. I think that’s wrong, too.

      2. Seattle has so many late stage drug addicts wandering around looking for a place to get high, I’m not sure any “safe injection site” or anything place else would keep people from getting high at the library. I can tell you that getting high at the public library is popular all over the USA, but taking a swing a librarian would mean automatic jail time and getting banned for a long time in most towns. I’m amazed at how Seattle does so little to protect public servants like librarians, teachers, firefighters and bus drivers.

    2. I’ll be waiting for the first lawsuit by the ACLU against the library for mistreating overdosed patrons.

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