Data: Opioid epidemic still rampant in Snohomish County

EVERETT — Snohomish County recorded the state’s second-highest number of fentanyl deaths last year — part of the ongoing opioid epidemic in which 245 people were treated for drug overdoses in the first three months of the year.

If the current numbers continue, it could mean more than 1,000 people in Snohomish County will be treated for drug overdoses this year just at Everett’s hospital, said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Forty-eight people — roughly one in five of those treated at the emergency room for opioid-related overdoses — were 30 or younger, he said. One of those was younger than 11.

The remaining 197 were ages 31 and older, including five people 90 and older. Indeed, 43 percent of those treated for overdoses were 61 or older, the data show.

No breakout was immediately available on how many of this year’s overdoses were caused by taking prescribed opioid medications and how many were from heroin, fentanyl or other types of street drugs.

The overdose numbers were compiled through a pilot program begun this year. The health district is working with Providence Regional Medical Center Everett to collect data from the emergency department on opioid-related overdoses.

Snohomish is one of three counties in the state to win a federal grant for the work.

Overdose numbers aren’t currently available for the county’s other three hospitals in Edmonds, Monroe and Arlington.

The emergency room overdose numbers provide just a partial picture of the opioid epidemic, Goldbaum said.

For example, there hasn’t been a count of how many times the overdose-reversing drug Naloxone has been administered by emergency medical services this year, or how many overdose patients had access to Naloxone. And there’s no way of knowing how many overdose patients didn’t seek any treatment.

Providence is hiring a nurse to follow up with overdose patients to see if they’re aware of Naloxone, which can be purchased without a prescription, and to provide information about local drug treatment programs.

Last year, Snohomish County’s 11 fentanyl deaths ranked second only to King County, which had 22 of the state’s 70 deaths. Fentanyl, a powerful opioid, is considered 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, and up to 50 percent more potent than heroin, state health officials say.

Overall, the number of heroin and opioid deaths has been declining locally, but 53 prescription opioid-related deaths were recorded last year, and 41 people died from heroin, according to preliminary Snohomish Health District data.

The data on opioid-related overdoses and fatalities are not only a measure of the severity of the problem. The information will help determine the best ways to try to help those who are addicted, Goldbaum said.

More information needs to be collected this year, such as how many of the overdoses are from prescription versus street drugs, and where the overdoses are occurring, he said.

Needle exchange services might need to be relocated to serve the areas of highest need, Goldbaum said.

“Then there’s the question of whether there should be safe injection sites,” he said.

Drug deaths have been reduced and participation in drug treatment programs increased after Vancouver, British Columbia, started a safe injection site program, Goldbaum said.

“If they’re injecting in a place where they’re safe and build a relationship of trust, they’re much more likely to accept treatment,” Goldbaum said. “It’s something the community will need to consider.”

The Washington State Medical Association is working with doctors to help them reduce their opioid prescribing practices, Goldbaum said.

And while patients shouldn’t endure unreasonable pain, they need to understand that pain medications need to be treated with care, because they can be highly addictive, he said.

A countywide program is scheduled to kick off in July to give the public a safe way to dispose of unused medications and over-the-counter drugs. Disposal boxes will be set up in communities. A firm has been contracted to legally dispose of the medications.

This could help reduce the unintentional diversion of leftover pain pills being stored in homes that can be diverted to others or sold on the street.

“The ability to keep opiates off the streets by people emptying their medicine cabinets of medications they don’t need anymore I think will be powerful,” said Dr. Ryan Keay, medical director of Providence’s emergency department.

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