Snohomish County heroin deaths called ‘epidemic’

EVERETT — Heroin deaths reached epidemic levels from 2011 through 2013 in Snohomish County, which accounted for nearly one in five of the state’s heroin fatalities, officials say.

The findings were included in a Snohomish Health District report released Tuesday, which said the rate of heroin deaths per 100,000 people exceeded the statewide figure.

“Snohomish County is facing an epidemic of drug overdoses,” says the report’s executive summary.

No one knows exactly why heroin fatalities spiked, although there are theories. It could be due to tighter control on prescriptions for narcotic pain pills, paired with a lack of treatment facilities, said Ken Stark, who directs the county’s Human Services department.

The county now has 16 publicly funded detox beds, operated by Evergreen Manor in Everett. “People wait for days to get into treatment,” said Linda Grant, chief executive officer.

Last year, 1,100 people were admitted to the in-patient detox program, about 80 percent of whom were treated for opiate or heroin addiction, she said.

People see heroin as an easy-to-get, cheap drug, Grant said. “If you want to look for drugs, it’s one of the easiest to get. If you’re trying to get high, it’s in vogue.”

The population of those being treated for opiate addiction has changed drastically, she said. Forty years ago, it was people in their 30s and 40s. Now it’s late teens and early 20s, Grant said.

“We’re talking college and high school students,” she said. “There are days when I walk through the detox center and it looks like a high school class. You would not believe these young ones would be so involved so soon.

Efforts are under way to open another 16 detox beds in south Snohomish County by the end of 2015, Grant said.

About two-thirds of the heroin-related deaths in Snohomish County from 2011-13 were men. Overall, death most commonly occurred among people 18 to 29 years old, according to the health district report. The data for calendar 2013 are the most recent available.

The deaths occurred most frequently in the North Everett and Tulalip ZIP codes, which accounted for 27 percent of the county’s heroin deaths from 2011 through 2013.

While 9 percent of local heroin deaths during 2011 and 2012 were among American Indians, who comprise 1.2 percent of the county population, only one such death occurred in 2013, according to the report.

Statewide, the heroin-related death rate is 3.2 per 100,000 people, while in Snohomish County it was 5.4 per 100,000 people, according to Jennifer Sabel, injury and violence prevention epidemiologist for the state Department of Health.

For comparison, King County’s rate matches the state’s and accounted for about a third of the heroin deaths statewide, she said.

The rise in heroin deaths followed efforts by the state, the federal government and pharmaceutical companies to tighten access to prescription pain medications, Stark said. Those medications became increasingly hard to get for people who had become addicted to them, he said. At the same time, there was a shortage of treatment facilities.

“There wasn’t adequate capacity,” he said.

“This isn’t just happening in Snohomish County, but in a number of places around the state and country,” Stark said.

Both the county government and the health district are trying to inform the public of the dangers of heroin and improperly used prescription pain pills, he said. Providence Regional Medical Center Everett treated 440 cases of opiate poisonings last year.

The Snohomish County Jail also has seen a growing number of heroin users in recent years. Heroin users now get extra medical supervision.

“The main purpose is to get them through the withdrawal stages,” Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Shari Ireton said. It can take two to three days before they join the general jail population.

An antidote that can help reverse overdoses of powerful opiate drugs is now available to the public at four area pharmacies. The kits include the medication called naloxone, or Narcan — part of a statewide effort to make a potentially lifesaving drug easily available. The kits cost about $125 and can be purchased without a prescription.

Herald reporter Eric Stevick also contributed to this report.

Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or salyer@heraldnet.com.

Heroin report

A copy of the Snohomish Health District’s report on heroin deaths is available at tinyurl.com/Snohomishheroinreport.

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