Commentary: A summer spent amid county’s opioid crisis

A county intern says despite the epidemic’s grim statistics, she sees hope in the local response.

By McKenna Sessions

For The Herald

As I grew up in Snohomish County, the opioid epidemic was something that I had heard about but hadn’t seen — really seen — until I went to work this summer at an internship with the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

Deputy David Chitwood of the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office spends most of his work week driving to vacant homes and wooded lots checking on nuisance properties, most connected in some fashion to the abuse of opioids. While on a ride-along, I witnessed some truths about our community’s shared crisis. Yes, there are piles of garbage and needles and despair. But there also is hope.

The Snohomish Health District recently calculated that between 5,000 and 10,000 people in Snohomish County are living with opioid-use disorder. On the low end, that would be a crowd similar in size to the average attendance at an Everett Silvertips home game. On the high end, that’s enough to populate a city the size of Snohomish. Those numbers make it likely that you will walk past someone in the grocery store who is using, or perhaps encounter them at the dentist’s office. Maybe they are with your kids at school, or part of your own family.

Now, I see evidence of the epidemic everywhere. It is in the places that I have driven past my whole life, unaware of what was right in my backyard. Chitwood confronts that every day, but remains hopeful. Along with others on the county’s nuisance property enforcement team, he’s witnessed successes, not only properties that have been cleaned up, but also lives turned around. If Chitwood had his way, he’d like to see more accessible treatment options available. He’s not out driving around looking to bust people, he says. Instead, he’s looking for ways to help those who are ready to take the next steps.

The impact that opioid abuse has on the county is well documented. During recent years the community has averaged more than 100 opioid-related deaths every 12 months. That works out to losing about two people every week. The annual opioid death toll is more than double the number of people lost in the 2014 Oso mudslide, the county’s worst mass-casualty event.

Still, there is a lot of denial. I spoke with a woman at one site I visited with Chitwood. It was in the woods. People had set up yard umbrellas and rolled out sleeping mats. There was trash everywhere. The woman willingly answered my questions; she admitted to having been addicted to drugs for about five years. Did she live there in the woods? No. She didn’t do that, she insisted. She lived in a nearby motel. She was in the middle of the woods in the middle of the day talking with a couple of strangers about drug abuse, but it was important for her to make clear that she wasn’t associated with the opioid epidemic.

Others helped me understand her responses: Fear. It is the fear of admitting a problem. It is the fear of what life may look like without addiction. It is fear of not being able to get clean. It is fear of being judged.

Kerrin Thompson, one of those Chitwood had worked with, talked about her own past struggles with addiction. She described herself as “someone who was raised by and lives with addicts.” She met Chitwood late last year. Her partner had overdosed and stopped breathing. The drug he took was unexpectedly laced with fentanyl. Chitwood brought the man back from overdoe, reviving him with naloxone. Today, Thompson says that overdose was what got her and her partner to make changes. Before then she didn’t see a way out. But there was help available when she was open to change.

“You just need to take that first step,” she said. Not only are Thompson and her partner now clean and sober, they are rebuilding their lives without drugs. She talked about how much time she now has because she is no longer focused on finding the next fix. Who knows? Maybe she’ll start knitting, she said.

There is hope in the chaos. The county and its partner agencies are using the emergency management system to tackle the opioid challenge with many of the same tools deployed to fight a flood, respond to a flu epidemic or start rebuilding after an earthquake. The team is made up of people who work for police and fire departments, planners, health officials and human services experts.

Lauren Rainbow is a social worker, embedded with a law enforcement patrols. She joins sheriff’s deputies in the field, looking to bring help to those willing to make changes. She focuses on building relationships. She takes people found living on the streets to their medical appointments, or provides transportation to get a new license. It’s through acts of service that Rainbow starts conversations about treatment options.

Many people in Snohomish County know somebody who is struggling with drug abuse. There is help for them, too. One good resource is the Snohomish Overdose Prevention website — snohomishoverdoseprevention.com — which features 10 things everyone should know about opioids, such as tips on how to safely store medications, how to talk to kids and parents, who to call if for advice and how to get involved in developing solutions.

Here is what I now see clearly about the opioid crisis: No one person is going to bring this epidemic to a close, but it’s going to take each and every person to fight it and help rebuild, one life at a time.

McKenna Sessions grew up in Lynnwood. She is a junior at California Baptist University, studying public relations and marketing. She worked as an intern this summer with the Snohomish County Department of Emergency Management.

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