Officials Stock Up on Overdose Antidote Naloxone After Fentanyl-Laced Letters Disrupt Vote Counting

Suspicious letters sent to voting centers and government buildings in six states this month were undeniably terrifying, some containing traces of fentanyl or white powder, accompanied by not-so-veiled threats and dubious political symbols.

Dating back to the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001, the mailers are prompting election officials, already frustrated by constant harassment and threats, to ask local police, firefighters and health departments for help to stock up. of naloxone, an overdose reversal medication.

Even if there is little risk from incidental contact with the synthetic opioid, having the antidote on hand is not a bad idea amid an addiction epidemic that is killing more than 100,000 people in the U.S. each year, and it can provide some security to stressed voters. workers, election administrators say.

The King County election headquarters began stocking Narcan, the nasal spray version of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, after receiving a letter containing fentanyl in the summer.

“My team is usually in direct fire just because we’re opening thousands or millions of ballots depending on the election,” said Eldon Miller, who runs the ballot opening staff at King County elections in Seattle, which was stocked with naloxone. after receiving a letter containing fentanyl in August. “I always tell my team that their safety is my utmost importance.”

The letters were sent this month to voting centers or government buildings in six states: Georgia, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Kansas. Some were intercepted before arriving, but others were handed over, prompting evacuations and briefly delaying the counting of votes in local elections. The FBI and the United States Postal Inspection Service are investigating.

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Some of the lyrics featured an anti-fascist symbol, a progress pride flag, and a pentagram. While the symbols have sometimes been associated with left-wing politics, they have also been used by conservative figures to label and stereotype the left. The political leanings of the sender were unclear.

A Narcan package is displayed at a first aid station at the King County election headquarters, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Renton, Wash. AP

Fentanyl, an opioid that can be 50 times more potent than the same amount of heroin, is causing an overdose crisis when used in pills or mixed with other drugs.

Touching it briefly cannot cause an overdose, and researchers have found that the risk of a fatal overdose from accidental exposure is low, unlike powdered anthrax which can float in the air and cause deadly infections when inhaled.

Election workers across the country have been besieged by threats, harassment and intimidation since former President Donald Trump and his supporters began spreading false election claims after he lost the 2020 election.

“I hope we encourage people not to hurt election officials,” said Ann Dover, elections director in suburban Atlanta’s Cherokee County, which did not receive any suspicious letters. “Many people are leaving the countryside. These are not just threats of physical harm. “There is a lot of emotional and psychological abuse.”

Ballot opening leader Eldon Miller works at the King County elections headquarters, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Renton, Washington. AP

Dover this month approached fire officials who provided Narcan, the nasal spray version of naloxone. Naloxone can be obtained without a prescription, given to people of all ages, and is safe for people who do not have opioids in their systems.

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His office is also taking new precautions with mail: leaving it in a particular location and designating a person to open it wearing gloves and a mask.

Lane County, Oregon, which received a suspicious letter, will provide naloxone kits and train election staff to administer them. So will Lincoln County, Nevada, which didn’t get one.

Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office said this week it will provide naloxone to any of the state’s 159 counties after a letter intercepted en route to election officials in Atlanta’s Fulton County tested positive for opioids.

In condemning the letters, Raffensperger noted that one of his children died of a fentanyl overdose about five years ago: “We know how deadly this substance is.”

Some of the letters, including those sent to King and Pierce counties in Washington state, had striking similarities to the one King County received while counting votes in this year’s August primary.

The incident led King County Elections to purchase naloxone, although the antidote was not needed at the time or when its Renton office received a second letter containing fentanyl this month.

“We felt it was a good idea to have it on hand for all kinds of scenarios these days,” said King County Elections spokeswoman Halei Watkins. “We have it in some places in the building and we include it with the first aid and emergency kits that go to our outside voting centers.”

Halei Watkins, communications manager for King County elections, poses for a portrait in the mail room at election headquarters, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Renton, Washington.AP

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Maya Doe-Simkins, co-director of Remedy Alliance/For The People, which launched last year to provide free or low-cost naloxone to community harm reduction programs, said governments should focus more on providing the antidote to those who They work with people who are prone to overdose.

There is no shortage of naloxone, which is available online and in some pharmacies, but its distribution leaves much to be desired, Doe-Simkins said.

“It is an absolutely gross misuse of resources to spend money to ensure that election officials have naloxone,” Doe-Simkins said, especially since “the actual appropriate, evidence-based intervention for naloxone distribution is underfunded and under-resourced.” ”.

Chris Anderson, elections supervisor in Seminole County, Florida, said his office has not received any envelopes containing fentanyl in the mail, but he obtained several doses of Narcan this month from the fire department, which said it had enough supply.

“We can save a life immediately with them,” Anderson said. “I appreciate the advice we were given by medical professionals and we will certainly do everything we can to not have to use Narcan, but in that case where it is necessary, I would rather have and not need than need and not have. “

In Tacoma, Washington, Pierce County Auditor Linda Farmer said her office obtained naloxone after neighboring King County’s experience in August. The office received a threatening letter this month containing baking soda and used the occasion to re-emphasize that naloxone is available.

“Last week we reminded staff where to find it,” Farmer said.

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