Island County teams formed to combat opioid addiction

By Jessie Stensland

Whidbey News Times

COUPEVILLE —A trio of Island County employees from different disciplines are expected to hit the streets next year in search of heroin users and pill takers.

In the 2017 budget, the Island County Board of Commissioners agreed to fund a sheriff’s deputy solely dedicated to a new outreach program aiming to combat opioid-abuse in the county.

The intention is not to arrest people. Instead, the goal is to reach out to people dealing with opioid addiction and offer them help — and hope. A deputy will team up with an outreach worker and a public health nurse, two new positions funded by grants.

Langley Police Chief David Marks said he’s been pushing for just such an outreach program for years and is enthusiastic about the effort.

“We need to work together on this,” he said. “The worst thing we can do is nothing.”

The Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute reports deaths from opiates increased by 77 percent in Island County between 2004 and 2013; the rate of admissions to publicly-funded treatment in the county increased 524.5 percent in that period.

County Commissioner Jill Johnson said the county was able to get a $74,000 grant through the five-county North Sound Behavioral Health Organization for an outreach worker who will focus solely on the opioid-using population.

Amerigroup Washington, a Washington Apple Health provider, supplied about $20,000 for a part-time public health nurse in a pilot project just for Island County. Johnson said the company wants to understand how “on the ground services” can be delivered to a difficult population.

The outreach team will make contact with people with opioid addictions, build rapport, assess the barriers to treatment, provide information about services and help people navigate the complex treatment and support services, according to the grant request.

The program also seeks to keep users out of jails and emergency rooms, Johnson said.

The outreach model isn’t unique to Island County, Human Services Director Jackie Henderson said.

Snohomish County has a similar program in which social workers are embedded with law enforcement. Island County’s program, however, is solely focused on opioid use while the Snohomish County program is more generalized.

Island County Sheriff Mark Brown said he will assign an experienced deputy to the new position. He wants an officer who knows the community, who the users are and where to find them. “You wouldn’t want someone who doesn’t know the players, so to speak,” Brown said.

While the outreach program will initially be on South Whidbey and Camano Island, it will likely expand to the rest of the county if successful, officials said.

The evidence of heroin use can be obvious.

Marks asked the Langley City Council earlier this year to close Seawall Park at nights after officers found 40 syringes in the park, a hang-out for users after dark.

Henderson said the outreach team will visit places where homeless people camp and homes where users congregate.

Other use is more hidden. One of the most surprising things about opioid addiction, Marks said, is the number of functioning addicts in the community.

The common story of addiction has become a cliche, but it often reflects reality: Someone becomes addicted to pain pills after a surgery or injury and turns to heroin after getting cut off by a doctor.

Lt. Evan Tingstad with the Island County Sheriff’s Office, who works on South Whidbey, said it used to be rare to get a call of a heroin overdose. It’s a different matter nowadays, he said. Ambulance crews now carry Narcan, an antidote to opioid overdose that’s used all too often — and with amazing results.

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