EVERETT — During one week in July, 27 people overdosed on opioids in Snohomish County. Two died.
The statistical snapshot, released for the third straight year, shows how the local chemical dependency crisis continues to morph.
This year’s numbers show more drug users are being brought back from the brink of death through overdose-reversal drugs. Contrary to some assumptions, most of the people who overdose lived in stable housing, rather than on the streets. Health and law enforcement officials are increasingly alarmed about fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.
“When we started this three years ago, there really wasn’t a whole lot of data out there on overdoses,” said Heather Thomas, a spokeswoman for the Snohomish Health District.
This summer’s point-in-time count was lower than the previous two. There were 57 overdoses in 2018 and 37 in 2017. There were two deaths, however, both this year and last. The health district released the figures Monday in coordination with Snohomish County.
Hospitals, first responders and other partners collected the information July 8-14.
In this year’s count, the overdose-reversal drug naloxone was used in 20 cases, nearly three-quarters of the total. In 12 instances, police or paramedics administered the drug, also known as Narcan. Another eight overdose patients were given the lifesaving drug by a friend, family member or bystander, public health officials said.
Naloxone may be more readily available now than it was just two months ago. Formerly available only through a prescription, State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy signed an order in August that allows any person or organization in Washington to get naloxone from a pharmacy. The drug is delivered through an injection or nasal spray.
Heroin remained the most common drug detected among overdose patients. Health and law enforcement officials, however, are alarmed by a suspected rise in fentanyl, a synthetic opioid the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes as up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
Local health officials said they were unable to track the prevalence of fentanyl during the recent count. State Department of Health data attribute 55 of the county’s 125 drug-overdose deaths last year to synthetic opioids, more than double the number from 2017. Law enforcement agencies report a rise in fentanyl on the streets and at the jail.
“We’re seeing it more, we’re seeing it laced in counterfeit pills that are being sold on the street,” Thomas said.
Geographically, overdoses are spread throughout the county.
The largest number during the point-in-time count occurred at home (12), followed by in cars (5), in homeless encampments (4) or in public (3). Three more happened at a hotel or motel.
“There tends to be a stereotype that most of the people using heroin or opioids are homeless,” Thomas said. “If you look at the data from point-in-time, only about 18.5% are homeless, so they’re either in stable housing or living with someone else.”
The numbers are unlikely to shock any police officers or corrections officers.
“People who work on our embedded social worker teams, people who work on patrol, people who work at the jail — none of them would be surprised by this data,” sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. “They’re on the front lines and they see it every day. They see it in booking and when they’re making contact on the front lines in the field.”
There are no signs the problems will disappear anytime soon, though Ireton contends that some approaches have helped. She cited a contract with Ideal Option to coordinate medication-assisted treatment for inmates at the Snohomish County Jail. The program, launched in December, had connected 157 patients with the treatment program through the end of July, Ireton said. Jail medical staff coordinate with representatives from Ideal Option to arrange post-release treatment, when people are most likely to relapse.
Dozens of people gathered for a vigil last week in downtown Everett to support people who had lost family or friends to drug overdoses. With the human testimonials and data, public health officials hope to ease the stigma of drug abuse and encourage people to seek help.
“We want to make sure that people aren’t afraid to admit they have a problem,” the health district’s Thomas said. “We want to make it as easy to reach out and ask for help with this disease as it is for anything else, such as diabetes, high blood pressure or cancer.”
Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @NWhaglund.
For more information on the scope of opioid abuse in Snohomish County and efforts to confront the problem, go to www.snohomishoverdoseprevention.com.