After Fentanyl-Laced Letters, Officials Stock Up on Naloxone

Elections officials around the country are feeling threatened in wake of opioid-laced letters
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Nov 19, 2023 7:02 AM CST
After Fentanyl-Laced Letters, Officials Stock Up on Naloxone
Narcan is pictured at King County Elections headquarters, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023, in Renton, Wash. The office began stocking the overdose-reversal nasal spray after receiving a letter laced with fentanyl in the summer and was evacuated the day after Election Day after receiving a similar envelope.   (AP Photo/Lindsey Wasson)

The suspicious letters sent to vote centers and government buildings in six states this month were undeniably scary, some containing traces of fentanyl or white powder, accompanied by not-so-veiled threats and dubious political symbols. Harkening back to the anthrax attacks that killed five people in 2001, the AP reports that the mailings are prompting elections officials already frustrated with ongoing harassment and threats to reach out to local police, fire, and health departments for help stocking up on the overdose reversal medication naloxone. Even if there's little risk from incidental contact with the synthetic opioid, having the antidote on hand isn't a bad idea amid an addiction epidemic that is killing more than 100,000 people in the US every year—and it can provide some assurance for stressed ballot workers, election managers say.

"My team is usually in the direct fire just because we're opening up thousands or millions of ballots depending on the election," says Eldon Miller, who leads the ballot-opening staff at King County Elections in Seattle, which stocked up on naloxone after receiving a fentanyl-laced letter in August. The letters this month were sent to vote centers or government buildings in Georgia, Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington, and Kansas. Some were intercepted before they arrived, but others were delivered, prompting evacuations and briefly delaying vote counts in local elections. The FBI and US Postal Inspection Service are investigating. Some of the letters featured an antifascist symbol, a progress pride flag, and a pentagram. While the symbols have sometimes been associated with leftist politics, they also have been used by conservative figures to label and stereotype the left.

Briefly touching fentanyl cannot cause an overdose, and researchers have found the risk of fatal overdose from accidental exposure is low. Election workers across the country have been besieged by threats, harassment, and intimidation since former President Trump and his supporters began spreading false election claims after he lost the 2020 election. "I hope we encourage people to not hurt election officials," said Ann Dover, elections director in suburban Atlanta's Cherokee County. "A lot of people are leaving the field. It's not just threats of physical harm. There's a lot of emotional and psychological abuse." Dover reached out this month to fire officials who provided Narcan, the nasal spray version of naloxone. Other municipalities:

  • Lane County, Oregon, which received a suspicious letter, will provide naloxone kits and train elections staff on administering it. So will Lincoln County, Nevada, which did not get one.
  • The office of Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger said this week it will provide naloxone to any of the state's 159 counties after a letter intercepted on its way to elections officials in Atlanta's Fulton County tested positive for opioids.
  • King County Elections has procured naloxone, though the antidote was not needed then nor when its Renton office received a second fentanyl-laced letter this month. "We felt like it was just a good idea to have on hand for all kinds of scenarios these days," county elections rep Halei Watkins says.

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Not everyone is happy with the move: Maya Doe-Simkins, co-director of Remedy Alliance/For The People, which launched last year to provide low-cost or free naloxone to community-based, harm-reduction programs, says governments should be more focused on providing the antidote to those who work with people likely to overdose. There is no shortage of naloxone, which is available online and at some pharmacies, but its distribution leaves something to be desired, Doe-Simkins says. "It is an absolute gross misuse of resources to spend money on ensuring that election officials have naloxone," Doe-Simkins says, especially because "the actual appropriate and evidence-based intervention for naloxone distribution is underfunded and under-resourced." (Read more fentanyl stories.)

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