Tracking a resource-heavy fight
SNOHOMISH COUNTY — To curtail the opioid crisis, it takes knowing your enemy.
There were 57 overdoses catalogued here in a one-week snapshot during mid-July. Two people died. The going average is eight overdoses a day countywide.
The incidents happened in private homes, in cars, in encampments, in parks. The locations were spread out: An overdose happened in almost every city in Snohomish County.
Beyond the data are human lives, county health officer Dr. Mark Beatty emphasized during a July 25 press conference.
One-third of the overdoses are listed as homeless people, meaning 77 percent — 35 individuals — were not. Half of the 57 people overdosed on street pills or heroin.
“They were in a family or had a career,” commiserated County Executive Dave Somers.
The county is attacking the emergency-level crisis strategically by adding muscle and resources. A one-stop hub in Everett to triage and manage homeless drug users opened in June with 47 beds. The county quickened the process to gain lab results from overdoses, and Providence Everett now shares data with authorities when an overdose patient enters the hospital. The health care system is beginning to database opioid prescriptions to
flag doctors who might be over-prescribing as well as interrupt patients who visit multiple physicians to “shop for prescriptions.”
An emergency medicine called naloxone, which rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, is credited with saving 40 people during the one-week survey. Emergency responders administered the sprays in 33 cases, but in seven others, people received the medication from their friends or family.
Naloxone is sold under the brand name Narcan and available for public purchase.
Of the 57 overdoses, 21 were from young adults aged 21 to 30. The next largest group was among people aged 31 to 40. There were five overdoses by people under 21, health district spokeswoman Heather Thomas said.
A 73-year-old is the oldest person who overdosed in the study.
One overdose death was from a pill laced with fentanyl, a hyperpotent synthetic opioid more lethal than heroin. These laced pills imitate percocet and are newly making their way onto the market, which is a stinging element in the fight to prevent overdose deaths.
The annual count found more people this year, but a larger pool of information sources also meant a more robust snapshot that cannot be fairly compared to last year’s count. The 2017 count logged 37 overdoses including three deaths.
Even so, the trend is real, Beatty said.
The Snohomish Health District hopes to collect enough data to create a pipeline of real-time information that goes beyond snapshots, Beatty said.
The opioid problem has disproportionately hit Snohomish County. During 2016, one in every six heroin deaths, 17 percent, occurred in Snohomish County even though the county comprises only 10 percent of the state’s total population.
What’s causing the crisis is complex. People addicted to prescription opioids such as Oxycontin who get cut off transition elsewhere– 60 percent of this group tries heroin, Beatty said.
“Addiction is driving (people) to continue” abusing opioids, he said.
When asked if the county is doing enough, Somers gave a straight answer.
“The magnitude of the problem overshadows our resources,” Somers said.
Gaining more resources may require asking the state for grants or asking voters for financial help, the county executive said.
Other questions were:
• Are allowing safe drug injection sites a solution to help opioid addicts?
No, Beatty said. “I don’t think it’s a realistic approach for Snohomish County” because of its population density, and injection sites drain valuable resources, he said.
• Has Snohomish County considered joining in the lawsuits against Oxycontin’s maker Purdue Pharma that Everett spearheaded in 2017?
The county is “discussing it,” Somers said, but has no immediate plans.
• What other ways are there to combat opioid abuse?
Prevention is the answer, Beatty said, and that means educating people, including kids at school.
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