Feb 23 2020
ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. — Shortly after his first-grade class let out for the day, Nash Kitchens sat with a dozen other young children at a library and played a murder mystery game that had a surprising plot twist.
The victim was a restaurant worker who had been found dead in a freezer. The killer, the children would discover, was heroin laced with fentanyl, an often fatal opioid.
Nash, who at 7 years old has a relative who has struggled with addiction, was wide-eyed as Jilian Reece, a drug prevention educator, talked about an ongoing opioid epidemic in their small rural community. She then demonstrated how to administer Narcan, an overdose reversal nasal spray.
“It’s just like a little squirt gun,” she told the group of children, before passing around the small plastic device for them to hold and squeeze. At the end of the session, each child received a blue zippered bag containing two doses of Narcan to take home.
Like scores of communities across America, Carter County, Tenn., which includes Elizabethton, has been struck hard by an opioid crisis that has ravaged families and reshaped how a generation of young people are being raised. Nationally, few cities have been spared as more than 400,000 Americans have died from opioid overdoses.
In Carter County, where 56,000 people live in a cluster of small cities and rural towns on the North Carolina border, nearly 60 people have died from opioid overdoses since 2014. That year, 8.1 million painkiller prescriptions were written in Tennessee, more than the state’s population of about 6.5 million.
Desperate to save lives, county health officials have embraced a practical — if radical — strategy for stemming the tide of addiction: Teaching children as young as 6 how to reverse an overdose.
In the past three years, the county’s drug prevention coalition has given Narcan training to an estimated 600 young children and teenagers in after-school programs, babysitting classes and vaping cessation courses. Some of the young people have in turn trained their peers and taken a leading role in distributing Narcan at community events, like a back-to-school bash last fall where one child gave out 70 doses.
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