Naloxone is a miracle cure for people who have overdosed from heroin or fentanyl, but it comes with a major downside. Though the drug can revive someone who has overdosed, that person often experiences severe opioid-withdrawal symptoms immediately after recovery.
“We had a lot of paramedics telling us that someone would be in an ambulance, knocked out, and then receive naloxone, and they would run out of the ambulance,” New Jersey’s health commissioner, Shereef Elnahal, told me. The pain of withdrawal can be so severe—like a very intense flu—that the person often feels an incredible urge to use drugs again.
New Jersey might have found a way around this problem. This week, Elnahal signed an executive directive that will allow paramedics to carry buprenorphine, a medication that treats opioid addiction, to help soften the withdrawal symptoms after someone has been revived with naloxone. Buprenorphine is considered one of the gold-standard drugs for the treatment of opioid addiction. If a person addicted to opioids continues to take it after a visit from paramedics, it could put them on the path to recovery.
The move appears, according to Stat News, to be the first attempt in the nation to initiate buprenorphine treatment for overdose victims immediately after revival. Last year, more than 3,000 people died of overdoses in New Jersey. To administer buprenorphine, which is sometimes known by the brand name Suboxone, paramedics will need to obtain permission from the ER doctors who oversee them. The patient’s insurance will then be billed for the provision of the buprenorphine.