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Northeast Ohio Recruits New Ally For Opioid Fight: Public Libraries

David C. Barnett
Twinsburg Public Library's Crystal Feyerchak explains the Deterra drug disposal bag to patron Dan Zaniewski.

In December 2016, a man walked into the Willloughby-Eastlake Public Library and collapsed.

“We know it was heroin,” said Lori Caszatt, who manages communications and development for Willoughby-Eastlake in Lake County, just east of Cuyahoga. “Our staff members called 911 and the paramedics and police came and they had to give him several doses of Narcan to have him become alert again.” 

A number of library systems, in cities ranging from Philadelphia to San Francisco, have begun stocking and getting training for the use of Narcan, the brand name for the overdose antidote naloxone. But, none of the 18 libraries we surveyed in Northeast Ohio had any immediate plans to keep a supply of the medication in-house.

Lori Caszatt said some staff members have balked at administering anything close to medical treatment.

“What if the person laying on the floor isn’t a drug addict and they administered Narcan?” she said. “Could they get in trouble for that? It’s not up to us to make a medical diagnosis for someone who’s lying on the floor of our library.”

But several area libraries have had staff trained by local law enforcement and drug experts to help spot people with problems. Anastasia Diamond-Ortiz – director of the Lorain Public Library system, which serves over a half dozen communities and townships to the west of Cleveland – saw clues about the growing opioid crisis, but didn’t recognize them at the time.

“We would be finding drug paraphernalia here and there,” she said. “We would be actually having to lock restroom doors, which was completely unusual for us because people were spending a lot of time in there.”

But Diamond-Ortiz says her wake-up call came after a branch librarian asked to organize an opioid information program in Colombia township.

“So, she actually got together an event and got somebody from the sheriff’s department to come, thinking, oh, maybe a few people will show-up,” Diamond-Ortiz said. “But it ended up being so popular that it’s a group that’s continued on." 

The Mentor Public Library, east of Cleveland, has plans to help rid local households of unused prescription painkillers that often accumulate in home medicine cabinets. Mentor executive director Cheryl Kuonen says her library is preparing to distribute Deterra ziplock bags that deactivate drugs to patrons.

“The way it works is that you put your unused old pills in there and there is a chemical reaction that happens that deactivates them and makes them safe to throw away,” she said. 

Mentor’s one of at least three local libraries planning to stock Deterra bags. Willoughby-Eastlake director Rick Werner all these reactions to the opioid epidemic are part of a new normal for libraries.

“In some respects, during the day, we’re a senior services organization, because our libraries are full of senior citizens,” he said. “After school, we become an after-school program. In the evenings, we’re homework centers. So, I think we very much recognize that we’ve got obligations beyond information provision.”

Werner added that it’s not surprising libraries have been touched by the overdose crisis, but he thinks they can play a key role in helping find a solution.

“We’re probably one of the last public institutions that’s open as many hours as we are and have absolutely no barriers to entry,” he said. “And I think with that openness and accessibility comes responsibility for us to make sure that we are as responsive to the needs of the community as we can be.”