Snohomish County fights to reduce opiate overdose deaths

EVERETT — It’s been an alarming trend that’s continued for several years — Snohomish County has some of the state’s highest death rates from opiate overdoses.

“Snohomish County is sort of at the epicenter of the opioid problem in Washington state,” said Dr. Gary Goldbaum, health officer for the Snohomish Health District.

Last year, the public health agency said heroin deaths reached epidemic levels. From 2011 through 2013, Snohomish County accounted for nearly one in five of the state’s heroin fatalities.

The public health agency is taking steps it hopes will reduce drug overdoses and deaths as well as help people get treatment.

The health district plans to hire an employee who would contact emergency room patients after they’ve been treated for an overdose at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

The patient, with their permission, will be told how they can access the overdose antidote naloxone. It helps block the effects of overdoses from heroin and prescription pain medications, such as oxycodone, Vicodin and codeine.

It can be purchased without a prescription for about $125 at 10 area pharmacies and an Everett nonprofit, The AIDS Outreach Project/ Snohomish County Syringe Exchange.

“We know the folks at highest risk for overdose are those who had a previous overdose,” Goldbaum said. “While we want everyone addicted to get into treatment, we don’t want them to die before they get into treatment.”

Although administering naloxone can be life-saving, it also puts the patient into acute withdrawal, with symptoms such as nausea, sweating, shaking and agitation.

Julie Zarn, Providence’s regional director of emergency and critical care, called the heroin epidemic a public health crisis.

Last year, 2,390 patients were treated at the hospital for problems with opioids or narcotics. Since 2014, 63 percent of the 6,932 patients treated for opioid or narcotic problems were under 30.

“We agreed we would get patient consent and say, ‘Here’s what happened with you today. We’re really worried about you in the future,’” Zarn said.

Hospital staff will tell the patient of the hospital’s relationship with public health officials, which can follow up with them and offer resources.

That includes having the health district employee see if the patient is interested in being referred for drug treatment.

Other parts of the health district’s program include helping physicians prescribe opioids appropriately and notifying them when a medication they approved was used in an overdose.

“Unfortunately, a lot of physicians aren’t aware that they may be prescribing more of these drugs than necessary,” Goldbaum said. “That can lead to people getting the drugs legitimately and ending up overdosing.”

Pain medications prescribed for patients having dental or surgical procedures can be misused when medications are stored in medicine cabinets.

They can be found by children or diverted for misuse into the community, Goldbaum said.

The health district also plans to begin tabulating nonfatal overdoses each quarter, information that will be shared with the state Department of Health.

Snohomish County joins Clallam County, which established a program to try to slow opioid deaths last year.

The two counties may be joined by Mason County in sharing $182,000 in grant money from the state health department to help pay for the pilot opioid programs.

“We have a problem that is similar to Snohomish County — really high rates of opiate deaths,” said Dr. Chris Frank, health officer for Clallam County Health and Human Services on the Olympic Peninsula. “It is probably the most visible public health problem in our community.”

Some 70 percent of overdoses in Clallam County involve heroin, the remainder are caused by prescription pain medications. Yet it’s a struggle to find money to pay for programs to help reduce overdoses and deaths, Frank said.he said.

Grants have paid for naloxone to be distributed free at needle exchanges to help stop the spread of HIV and hepatitis C.

A program to report both fatal and non-fatal overdoses to that public heath agency began in January of last year. Drug treatment and counseling is offered to overdose patients who are interested, he said.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486;

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