‘It’s a community problem’: How harm reduction cushions Wichita’s fentanyl crisis

Free and easy access to naloxone and fentanyl test strips is changing how Wichitans are thinking about overdose deaths and saving lives.

by Erin Heger

With armfuls of pamphlets, fentanyl test strips and naloxone, Morgan Jennings shows up around Wichita on a mission: trying to stop opioid overdoses.

For Jennings, every opportunity to distribute naloxone, a medication that reverses opioid overdoses, is a chance to honor the people in her life affected by substance use disorder. She lost her father to alcoholism in 2000 and a good friend to fentanyl in 2016.

“That was a huge life change for me,” Jennings said. “It made me realize that this could really happen to anyone, and if I want to stop seeing my friends pass away, then I need to do something about it.” 

Over the last four years, more than 800 people in Sedgwick County died from overdoses — the highest rate in the state. Advocates like Jennings say harm-reduction efforts, like providing fentanyl test strips and overdose-reversing naloxone, save lives.

More people are getting their hands on naloxone

Last year, Jennings got involved with Safe Streets Wichita, a nonprofit working to reduce drug-related deaths. She drops off naloxone at local restaurants, bars and clubs and sets up tables at music shows and community events with naloxone kits that include instructions on how to use the medication and signs that someone is experiencing an overdose. 

Jennings also brings emergency contraceptive pills, condoms, tampons, pads and CPR mouth shields. She displays the supplies in a tackle box with labels, such as “Free supplies” and “Naloxone here, take 2,” next to business cards and pamphlets of local organizations offering mental health services and free sexually transmitted infection testing. 

At first, people were skeptical, Jennings said, often questioning why they should carry naloxone if they don’t do drugs or know anyone who does. But the more she talked with people about opioid overdose deaths in Wichita, the more people began to understand how they could help.

“Even if you don’t think it affects you, you need to be prepared,” Jennings said. “You could just be at QuikTrip getting gas, and you see someone passed out in their car. You could be the person who saves their life.” 

But to help, more people need naloxone kits. 

Safe Streets Wichita offers naloxone, fentanyl test strips and other harm-reduction products for free at community events. (Niko Schmidt/The Beacon)

In January 2023, Safe Streets Wichita received $20,675 from the city of Wichita to distribute naloxone in the community. From January to August 2023, the organization distributed 6,733 naloxone kits and 5,826 fentanyl test strips, with many people coming back to request more, said Aonya Barnett, director of Safe Streets Wichita. 

About 7% of those kits have been used, Barnett said, though that figure is likely underreported. 

“Not only were people coming back to get more to replace the kits they were using, but other folks in the community were seeing how they could be utilized in their neighborhoods and telling us they needed them too,” Barnett said. “And that’s data we need to consider as we move forward.” 

Naloxone at the push of a button

The words “Save A Life Carry Naloxone” are displayed on the side of the large gray vending machine in front of Second Chance Bail Bonds at the corner of Pine and Broadway. Doses of Narcan, a brand name for naloxone, sit behind the glass. 

Unlike most vending machines, this one doesn’t require payment. Instead, anonymous users punch in their ZIP code and the coils push out the medication.

DCCCA Inc. installed the naloxone vending machine, one of the state’s first, in February. The nonprofit chose the site because of the high rate of overdose deaths in the area. 

The organization has set up elsewhere in the state, including in Hutchinson and Lawrence, said Stacy Haines, community support specialist with DCCCA. So far, the vending machine in Wichita is the most used by a long shot, dispensing 956 kits in its first three months compared to Hutchinson’s 274 within the same period. 

“I’ve been refilling the vending machine in Wichita at least once a week, and every time I go, the machine is usually at 20% or below capacity, and people come up to me asking for kits directly,” Haines said. “I expected (the vending machine) to be used a lot, but I didn’t anticipate just how often I would need to refill it.” 

A woman enters her ZIP code to access naloxone at a vending machine in Wichita. Advocates hope that efforts to make naloxone widely available will turn the tide in Wichita’s fentanyl crisis.
(Niko Schmidt/The Beacon)

Studies have found naloxone vending machines have decreased opioid overdose deaths in other parts of the country. Clark County, Nevada, saw a 15% reduction in opioid overdose deaths in the first year after installing one, and a naloxone vending machine in Cincinnati resulted in at least 78 overdose reversals

Data from organizations like Safe Streets Wichita and DCCCA indicate naloxone is reaching more people in Wichita, but it is still too early to determine whether the efforts cut overdose deaths. The Regional Forensic Science Center based in Sedgwick County hasn’t finalized its 2023 overdose death report yet, and with the number of outstanding cases, it could go any direction. 

Wichita’s fentanyl crisis persists

The rates of overdose deaths in Sedgwick County have sharply increased since 2020, mirroring a national trend. Nearly 108,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2022, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention  — a 53% increase from 2019

The CDC has not yet released overdose death numbers for 2023, but provisional data from January through October indicate overdose deaths remained steady.

Data from organizations like Safe Streets Wichita and DCCCA indicate naloxone is reaching more people in Wichita, but it is still too early to determine whether these efforts are reducing overdose deaths. 

“We are still seeing overdoses, but a lot of (young people) are being saved because people are realizing that Narcan can do that,” said Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter. “But the opioid crisis is still here.” 

Help beyond naloxone still needed

Wichita police officers and Sedgwick County deputies carry naloxone and are often the first people to respond when someone is experiencing an overdose. It’s important to have the medication on hand and be able to save someone in a crisis situation, Easter said, but naloxone alone doesn’t get to the root of the problem.

“Narcan is a lifesaver, but there has to be a lot more to this than Narcan,” Easter said. “There’s not enough access to (substance use disorder) treatment, especially for the uninsured.” 

Ideally, law enforcement would be able to direct people toward services, Easter said, to help them get treatment or address other factors contributing to their substance use, like mental health. But many treatment centers, especially those that treat the uninsured, have monthslong waiting lists and officers are left with few options.

“If you have insurance, you can typically access some kind of treatment,” Easter said. “But if you don’t, you can’t, and that’s a majority of the problem.”

Greater awareness and knowledge matter

While they are waiting on data, advocates like Haines say they are starting to see a shift toward more community awareness and involvement in reversing this trend. 

“In trainings, I ask the question, ‘Do you know someone who was saved by naloxone?’ And more and more people are raising their hands,” Haines said. “That tells me word is getting out, naloxone is getting in more people’s hands, and lives are being saved.” 

Jennings, too, says she has seen people develop a better understanding of the scope of the issue and how substance use and overdoses are a community problem, not an individual one. 

“I love seeing that lightbulb moment go off for people when they realize this is bigger than themselves,” Jennings said. “I want Wichita to be a place where everyone is prepared and knowledgeable and we all think of the bigger picture. As a community, we can make sure that we are all safe.” 


If you or someone you know struggles with substance use, reach out to the Substance Abuse Center of Kansas for help or call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357. 

To learn more about DCCCA’s naloxone program and where to get naloxone in Wichita, visit their website here.

This article was republished here with the permission of: The Beacon