Sonoma State University and SRJC ramp up opioid overdose prevention campaign

Students, staff and others are being trained in the use of Narcan to be administered during suspected overdoses.|

Jason Dorfer, 45, struggles a bit when describing what it feels like to save someone’s life, but the two words that come to mind are “emotional” and “genuine.”

It was around the start of the pandemic, and Dorfer, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College who is recovering from addiction, was at a gathering at a local park with others in recovery. Suddenly, a newcomer became unresponsive.

Dorfer, who is president of SRJC’s Second Chance Club for formerly incarcerated students, rushed to his car to retrieve a Narcan nasal sprayer, which he had received only a week earlier from the school’s health services staff.

It took two doses to revive the stranger, whom he’s not seen since.

“It's's an emotional thing because nobody wants to be put in a situation where they have to save somebody’s life,” Dorfer said last week. "But when it happens, it's like the feeling is genuine and it’s, it's very emotional.“

Amid the ongoing opioid crisis — where synthetic drugs like fentanyl are playing an outsized role — Dorfer said more students should learn how to use potentially life-saving drugs such as Narcan, the most well-known brand name for naloxone hydrocloride.

That’s exactly the goal of a new state law that requires California state universities and community colleges to make naloxone and overdose prevention information more readily available to students. The new law, which look effect Jan. 1, also requires community colleges to provide information about the availability of naloxone during student orientation.

At SRJC, naloxone nasal spray has been available through the Health Services Center since 2019, but many students are unaware of its availability and proper use, said Rebecca Norwick, director of the school’s Student Health Services.

“The bill will make a difference because I do not believe a large percentage of the students know that we have the Narcan for distribution,” said Norwick, who is a nurse practitioner.

Norwick said the campus is planning a greater push for both outreach and distribution of the medication, such as placement in first aid kits in various campus departments and buildings, as well as in the nearly completed 258-unit, five-story student housing building on the southeast corner of Elliott Avenue and Armory Drive.

She said staff are working out the logistics of widespread placement of the drug; unlike band aids and sterile gauze, Narcan expiration dates would require periodic restocking by health services staff.

“We're opening student housing in the fall, so that is definitely a location that we're going to be doing naloxone outreach to recommend that students have it in their first aid kit, because people will be there 24 hours a day,” Norwick said.

A national and local crisis

Nationally, 67 percent of the 107,375 people who died of overdoses and drug poisonings during a 12-month period ending January 2022 involved synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Drug enforcement experts have said that poor quality control of counterfeit opioids and other drugs laced with fentanyl are responsible for a large share of these deaths and emergency visits.

According to data from the Sonoma County’s District Attorney’s Office, there were 109 fentanyl deaths in the county in 2021. The local coroner’s office reports that in the first 11 months of 2022 there were 74 drug deaths caused by accidental overdoses, most involving fentanyl intoxication.

Even those using opioids as prescribed run the risk of addiction. As many as a quarter of all residents taking opioids prescribed to them for an extended period of time will end up struggling with dependency issues.

How it works

Norwick explains that ingesting too much of an opioid, such as morphine, or something laced with fentanyl, can completely suppress a person’s respiratory system. Their breathing either slows way down or stops altogether, often resulting in cardiac arrest.

She stressed that Narcan is not a substitute for emergency medical treatment and people should contact a first responder immediately.

Norwick said that when a person is found unconscious and is suspected of having a drug overdose, “you put the person on their back and then you squirt (the naloxone) into their nose and then you turn them on their side. so if they vomit they don't inhale the vomit.”

She said naloxone “works really well and very quickly. It is quite dramatic. So the person can wake up immediately if the cause was an opioid overdose.”

Naloxone won’t work if the overdose happens because the person took too much Valium or some other sedative, she said.

“The opioid is attached to the cell and the Narcan comes through and it knocks the opioids off of the's very specific,” Norwick said. She added that the current push for a much wider use of naloxone is safe because it has almost no serious side effects.

“If the person is unconscious because of a heart attack — you just can't tell — and you give them Narcan, it will not injure them,” she said. “It's safe and it works very well and very quickly.”

Sonoma State University Dean of Students Ryan Jasen Henne likens the current push for greater awareness of naloxone’s life-saving potential to cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR.

Henne said the opioid crisis is “visible” across the country and putting naloxone in the hands of students who might need it could ultimately save lives.

“If more people are aware of how to administer CPR then they can save someone’s life. The more people (who) have access and availability to naloxone people's lives,” Henne said. “So it's not just about meeting the expectations of a (state law), it’s really about saving lives and taking care of students.”

At Sonoma State, and also SRJC, campus police officers have been equipped with Narcan for several years, and it’s included in their medical kits as well. They are likely the first reponders to a campus overdose incident.

Sonoma State Police Chief Nader Oweis said in June 2020, a campus police sergeant administered Narcan to someone who had overdosed. Oweis said Sgt. Neal Mackenzie was dispatched to a call for medical aid involving a visitor to the campus who was unresponsive and not breathing.

Mackenzie quickly recognized that the individual was suffering from a possible drug overdose and he immediately administered Narcan and provided additional care until fire and ambulance personnel arrived, Oweis said.

Campus police regularly carry the nasal spray but at some point will be transferring to an injectible version similar to the Epinephrine injectors, or EpiPens, he said.

Oweis said the campus is currently working on a plan, due out in the next few months, to bolster its training around the use of naloxone. The plan includes campus visits by expert speakers on opioid use and overdose dangers, along with other drug and alcohol use issues.

Sonoma State students can get access to Narcan through the Health Services Center, as well as the police department, where all the officers have been trained to administer the medication.

At SRJC’s Health Services Clinic, small Narcan nasal spray boxes, which have two applicators, are kept in the center’s pharmacy room. Each box contains instructions on how to use the medication.

Norwick described SRJC’s “naloxone program” as robust even prior to the new state law. The campus has always been able to get the amount of medication requested, she said, usually 75 boxes a year. The campus currently has 20 units in the health center.

Norwick said that when a student comes to the campus clinic to ask for Narcan, they are also provided with a link to video instructions on how to use it. She said student questions are often mixed with certain anxieties and fears about using the medication.

She said student questions include: “Are there side effects? Is it safe? How do you do it? Is it easy to do? Would it hurt anyone? And also why should I carry it?”

Ideally, everyone would have naloxone in their first aid kit, she said.

“There might be a friend or a family member or your teenage child's acquaintance who might be found unconscious and anyone could save that person's life,” she said.

Norwick said it only takes a little bit of instruction or training for students to overcome their anxiety or fear of administering naloxone. She applauded the state legislature’s focus on making it more available.

“This was an important bill,” she said. “Naloxone is an amazing resource for community members, including our students, and having it readily available is an important aspect of our fight against the opioid crisis that we have in Sonoma County and in the United States.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or On Twitter @pressreno.

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