By 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.