Editorial: Coordinated effort a good cure for opioid crisis

Agencies are using their response to emergencies to guide their work in fighting an epidemic.

By The Herald Editorial Board

It can be hard to find hope amid the flood of statistics that surround us on the opioid crisis, nationwide and closer to home.

Overdoses, primarily from opioids, are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50 years of age, killing about 64,000 nationwide in 2016. That’s 175 deaths every day in the U.S. Snohomish County, from 2013 to 2016, saw nearly 100 overdose deaths each year.

But there is hope in the statistics, even where there is still a grim count to confront.

Overdose deaths in the county actually decreased from a spike of more than 140 in 2011. Health and law enforcement officials believe the drop in deaths can be credited at least in part to the increased availability of naloxone, also known as Narcan, which can arrest an overdose and can be administered by nearly anyone.

A one-week snapshot of the opioid crisis earlier this July brings that tool’s effectiveness into even sharper focus. Of 37 overdoses reported to the Snohomish Health District from July 17 to 23, the lives of 24 people were saved because of naloxone, administered either by law enforcement, paramedics, a friend, family member or bystander.

What that demonstrates is that the efforts of law enforcement, health officials, emergency management, medical workers, city and county officials, community groups and many others can and are seeing success in confronting opioid deaths. And it’s why those efforts to better communicate and coordinate the response need the public’s support and cooperation.

Less than a month ago, those public agencies announced a plan to coordinate their efforts in a manner similar to how they have worked together during responses to natural disasters and other emergencies. The Opioid Response Multi-Agency Coordination Group — MAC for short — looks to build on the lines of communication and coordinated response that already are in place and have been tested and strengthened in each emergency, in particular the response to the 2014 Oso landslide.

Each has had its own part to play in responding to the epidemic, but better communication and coordination should improve the assessment of needs, collection of data and allocation of resources.

Responding as if to a slow-rolling disaster, the MAC group is meeting regularly to assess and refocus its efforts.

Among the MAC’s goals, short-term and long-term, are: reducing opioid misuse and abuse; limiting the availability of opioids; connecting those with addiction to resources; reducing criminal activity related to opioids; using data to evaluate and direct responses; and ensuring the availability of resources.

Officials aren’t viewing this as just an avenue to increased funding from state and federal sources.

There’s recognition, said County Executive Dave Somers during a recent meeting with The Herald Editorial Board, that local officials’ best course is to make the most of what is available by coordinated and efficient use of the funding and resources that they can draw on. It’s a plus, later, if that coordination helps make the case as funding does become available.

The MAC group is building on coordination that already is occurring. Several cities in the county, for example, have teamed up social workers with police and sheriff’s office patrols, particularly at homeless encampments, to connect those with addictions to services and opportunities for treatment. And they do want treatment; a survey at a local needle exchange program found that 7 in 10 were interested in reducing or stopping their opioid use, most through treatment or counseling, the health district reports at SnohomishOverdose Prevention.com.

Similarly, the health district is considering assuming management of a needle exchange program now run by a nonprofit group. On its own, the exchange of clean syringes for used needles limits the chance for the spread of disease. But under the health district’s leadership, it offers the chance for health workers to vaccinate people for hepatitis and connect them with other services, said Dr. Mark Beatty, the district’s health officer.

But the other partner this effort must coordinate with is the general public. Key to this effort will be public education that emphasizes the need to support and continue the work.

Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary is known for telling all who will listen that “we cannot arrest our way out of an opioid epidemic.”

Nor can we simply allow those who are addicted to die of overdoses or disease, as some have suggested to him. Such a lack of response, or expecting we can use our jails as detox centers, Trenary told the editorial board, isn’t cost effective. The problem becomes cyclical as those with addictions are arrested, released and arrested again. It’s the most expensive response the county could undertake, Trenary said.

And it’s not humane, because it ignores the reality that addiction is a disease, and one that many have contracted innocently through the use of prescription medications.

Fortunately, it’s a treatable disease. Especially when we’re willing to take the necessary steps to confront it.

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