Editor’s note: This is the first in a weekly series of commentaries that will examine the opioid crisis in Snohomish County from four different perspectives.
By Dave Somers
Every part of Snohomish County is affected by the opioid crisis.
We see the evidence where we live, work and play, but most importantly, it’s experienced by each of our families in one way or another. From nuisance crimes, to the homeless on our streets and in camps, to the needles left in parks, to the many overdose victims flooding our emergency rooms and morgues, we can see first-hand the effects of this insidious disease. It knows no limits, hitting urban, suburban and rural areas equally hard. Victims of addiction are wealthy and poor, employed and jobless, men and women, young and old. These are our neighbors, friends, and family.
While Snohomish County has 10 percent of the population in Washington state, we have 18 percent of its opioid overdoses. We had to do more.
Last year, as we were reviewing policy ideas for improving our response to the crisis, one issue became crystal clear. Everyone was working very hard to contain their part of the problem, but there was no over-arching mechanism for collaboration.
Our human services professionals were helping as many victims of addiction and overdoses as they could. Law enforcement was going after those who committed crimes and working through the Office of Neighborhoods to expedite addiction recovery. Cities were working to fight the problem within their borders. Paramedics were saving lives and getting people the urgent medical help they needed. The Snohomish Health District was getting opioids out of our medicine cabinets and off the streets. But everyone wasn’t in the same room devising common goals and coordinating responses. We were stuck in silos and needed a more formal means of partnering.
Therefore, in November of 2017, I signed a declaration partially activating our emergency response system. This allows us to use our disaster response tools — like those we used for the Highway 530 landslide — to address this difficult and costly crisis. It brings everyone together in one place to bring each perspective and set of tools to bear on this multi-faceted problem.
As a result, we have now set regional goals across the county and strengthened our coordination and communications. Everyone is striving to achieve our joint goals. We meet weekly in our emergency coordination center and work collaboratively to make progress. We will periodically report to the public what we’re doing, since this crisis is not just a problem for governments.
As far as we know, we are the first county to stand up a multi-agency coordination group and activate limited emergency operations in response to the opioid crisis. Since it has never been done before, we are adapting as needed to the circumstances we face. We do hope this becomes a model for others facing this crisis. We know our partners in other agencies are doing their best, and now we have a means for all of us to cooperate in one broad effort.
Will we cure addiction and homelessness in Snohomish County? No. Even with limitless resources, it isn’t possible right now. But what we can do is help those who are suffering, lessen the impact on our community, and provide easier (and cheaper) paths for those who want to address their addictions and related challenges. We can also shift from high-resource responses, like housing people in our jail, to lower-cost responses such as treatment and medical services. With our many partners, we now have a mechanism for easing the crisis across the county. Eventually, it may be that we need to look at a wider regional or even statewide approach, since addiction doesn’t respect geographic borders, but today we are focused on doing more across Snohomish County to save lives and make our communities safer.
For more information on our coordinated efforts — including its objectives, action team leads and future progress reports — please go to www.snohomishoverdoseprevention.com. This website and accompanying social media accounts were developed to be a one-stop shop for resources.
Whether trying to understand the problem, prevent addiction, or save a life, this is a place to find information for that first next step.
Dave Somers is county executive for Snohomish County.