Six People Have Overdosed at the Denver Library’s Central Branch in 2017

Six People Have Overdosed at the Denver Library’s Central Branch in 2017
With 2,500 visitors a day, the Denver Public Library’s Central branch is especially susceptible to trends affecting the general population.

“We realize that the people that come to the library — not just our customers, but anyone who walks through the doors — is representative of what’s happening in society in general,” says library spokesman Chris Henning. “When [we] start to see national trends, we try to be as prepared as we can.”

This year, that has included incorporating Narcan kits — nasal spray used to treat opioid-overdose victims — into the library’s arsenal. Since January, the Central branch has seen six opioid-related overdoses. In fact, on February 28, the day the six Narcan kits were given to staff, one was used on a visitor.

“It’s alarming, especially to administration,” Henning says. “It’s not something we want to see, not something we want to have happen in our facilities or generally.”

As we've reported, heroin-related fatalities in Denver have increased 933 percent since 2002. Nationally, opioid overdoses tripled between 2002 and 2015, from just over 10,000 to nearly 35,000, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“We pride ourselves on being open to everybody, and we do everything we can do to remove barriers to people coming in and being served,” Henning says. “Are we taking all the steps we can take to make sure we’re protecting people?”

Communication with the staff and with the community were among among the library’s first steps in battling the problem. Employees meet regularly with what Henning calls “community partners,” including the Denver Police Department, the mayor’s office and on-the-ground nonprofits like the Harm Reduction Action Center, which offers clean syringes and other services to injection-drug users. From their meetings came the idea to buy the Narcan kits.

And though the overdoses have been concentrated at the Central branch, the DPL has started communicating information about opioid overdoses, like how to spot and treat them, to every branch.

This year, the Central branch received a grant to incorporate three “peer navigators” into its staff; it's one of the few libraries in the U.S. that also has social workers on site. The peer navigators are trained to deal specifically with visitors who have substance-abuse issues, handling problems that don’t require a clinical fix, like directing someone to social services or walking them through the process of applying for Medicaid.

Only security guards at the Central branch are trained to administer Narcan, which takes between one to three minutes to stabilize an overdose victim — enough time, ideally, for paramedics to arrive — but more staff will be given the opportunity to learn about Narcan in the coming months. A kit comes with two nasal-spray injections, but one could be enough to curb an overdose. They’re sold to government agencies at a discount, so each $125 kit costs the library $75.

“We’re right on target with what we should do,” Henning says, “but that doesn’t take care of the problem.”
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Ana Campbell has been Westword's managing editor since 2016. She has worked at magazines and newspapers around the country, picking up a few awards along the way for her writing and editing. She grew up in south Texas.
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