EVERETT — A year ago, local leaders declared opioid overdoses an emergency — a deadly crisis on par with an earthquake or some other natural disaster.
That meant marshaling government forces throughout Snohomish County: police and paramedics, medical professionals and social workers.
Since then, there’s been progress, though much unfinished work remains.
The multi-agency effort is credited with helping train hundreds of people to save lives with overdose-reversal drugs; to slash toxicology turnaround times, giving families and detectives answers after deaths; and to secure millions of dollars for a job-training program tailored toward addicts and people struggling with homelessness.
“We know our efforts to save people and give them a second chance are working,” County Executive Dave Somers said. “The key to the (Multi-Agency Coordination) group is that we’re not just doing human services. … There’s a law enforcement component. We’re trying to stop the flow of illegal drugs. At the same time, we’re trying to help the people who can and will be helped.”
Somers signed an emergency directive on Thursday to extend the countywide action another year. It puts the county’s Department of Emergency Management in charge of coordinating overdose-prevention across agencies that otherwise might not keep in close contact.
It’s yielded better teamwork and better information, on where overdoses are happening, what drugs are involved and who’s seeking help.
“It surprised me … our counts showed that about 60 percent of the people we encounter who are struggling with addiction are actually in housing,” Somers said. “At least part of this problem is people who are with families or in housing. That’s a much higher number than I would have thought.”
Despite some encouraging news, the crisis won’t go away anytime soon.
In 2017, 100 people died in Snohomish County by overdosing on heroin, synthetic drugs such as fentanyl, or prescription painkillers, according to the Snohomish Health District. This year, another 70 opioid-related overdose deaths were recorded through the end of September. The emergency room at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett reported 464 overdose patients over the same period.
The Medical Examiner’s office noted that the youngest overdose fatality so far this year was 17, the oldest 87.
“For every person that our firefighters and paramedics help, there is a complex story that needs an entire community’s response,” South County Fire Chief Bruce Stedman said in a prepared statement.
Sheriff’s deputies have started using an app to map where overdoses are happening, said Shari Ireton, a sheriff’s office spokeswoman. Deputies type in the patient’s gender, location and whether the person survived. It provides information that, in conjunction with quicker toxicology turnaround times, allows the Snohomish Regional Drug Task Force to act more quickly.
“We’re now starting to get a better picture,” Ireton said. “We’re sharing the data and starting to see how this is impacting all segments of our community. When you’re informed, you can make better decisions.”
Police and social workers are now working side-by-side throughout much of the county.
Those teams have referred 347 people to a diversion center that opened next to the jail this spring, Ireton said. The 44-bed facility is intended as a launching pad where people who had been living in homeless encampments can stay for a couple of weeks to connect to longer-term services. Of those referrals, 142 entered treatment and 46 now have housing, she said.
Snohomish County’s opioid response also has helped:
The Medical Examiner’s Office reduce toxicology turnaround times in fatal overdoses to 12 days on average from 15 weeks. The information helps answer family members’ questions and is useful to law enforcement in tracking illegal drugs.
More than 800 people take a one-hour first-aid course designed by South County Fire & Rescue that focuses on using naloxone to reverse an overdose, among other life-saving techniques.
Workforce Snohomish secure a $2.4 million grant to develop a program to help people struggling with substance abuse and homelessness find jobs.
Distribute more than 1,000 needle clean-up kits and 500 lock bags designed to keep prescriptions secure.
Connect more than 3,600 at-risk students and their families to behavioral health and other services.
Train staff at 14 Snohomish County-supported senior centers to safely handle and dispose of prescription drugs.
Visit www.snohomishoverdoseprevention.com to learn more about local efforts to combat opioid abuse.