PORT ANGELES — Officials with the Clallam County Department of Health and Human Services distributed 30 boxes of the opioid overdose reversal drug Narcan during a recent presentation, saying the drug is saving lives in Clallam County and giving people an opportunity to seek help.
Dr. Allison Berry Unthank, Clallam County health officer, told the dozens of people who attended the presentation Monday night that since the county began distributing naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, and first responders began carrying the antidote, the number of overdose deaths has sharply declined in the county.
While there were 16 overdose deaths in 2016 and 10 overdose deaths in 2017, only two people died of opioid overdoses last year, she said.
“The biggest thing I talk about is that these are people and their lives have value,” Unthank said. “There’s this worry that we care more about these folks than other folks. It’s rather that we haven’t cared about these folks and we’re trying to change the dynamic of actually caring about these people.”
About half of the overdoses have been from prescription drugs, not heroin, she said.
Among those who attended the presentation are people who are in recovery, people who have family members who use opioids and people who work closely with populations that use opioids.
Unthank urged anyone who has a loved one who uses opioids to have naloxone. She said those who use opioids should make sure others know where their dose of naloxone is and that they should always be with someone else or somewhere that they could be found if they overdose.
She said not everyone who has a supply of naloxone gets the drug from the county’s syringe exchange. Some also get it from their primary care providers or just purchase it from the pharmacy.
A coalition of providers in Clallam County are working to address the opioid issue by working toward three goals, she said.
Officials hope to expand access to evidence-based treatment programs, increase access to naloxone and reduce the number of opioid prescriptions in the county. The county is making progress on those goals, she said, but there’s still room to grow.
While providers in Clallam County were prescribing opioids at three times the state average in recent years, doctors now prescribe two times as many opioids.
“It’s still too much, but it’s better than three times,” Unthank said.
She said that providers also are working to expand access to medicine assisted treatment, which includes prescribing the use of Suboxone, methadone and Vivitrol to be used in conjunction with counseling and/or mental health care.
“It’s really between you and your provider to figure out what you need,” she said. “What works best is combining treatment and medication with counseling, figuring out why you use, changing your habits and trauma-informed care.”
She said that when she first started as a provider at the Jamestown Family Health Clinic, where she has a medicine-assisted treatment program, the wait for people to get into a medicine-assisted program was months.
Now, as medicine-assisted treatment programs in clinics across the county are expanding, people can get help within a day, she said. When asked about people who don’t have insurance, she said North Olympic Healthcare Network will see people regardless of their ability to pay.
Also, she said, a lot of people trying to get sober are eligible for Medicaid and just don’t know it.
“We’ve got more people doing treatment and we’ve improved our referral structure, so now we can get people into a lot of clinics within a day or same day and a lot of clinics within a week,” she said.
“The data is if you don’t get to them within 24 hours, the chance they will change their mind is pretty high.”
She compared quitting heroin to quitting cigarette smoking. She said that it is socially acceptable for people who are quitting smoking to use aids, such as nicotine patches, without facing the same judgment as people who are trying to get off heroin.
“What we know with [quitting] smoking is that doing it without medicine rarely works,” she said. “Cold turkey is the least effective way to quit smoking and it’s the same with this.”
She said abstinence-only models are not nearly as successful.
“For some people that works and that’s great,” Unthank said.
“If you can wake up one day and be like, ‘I don’t want to use heroin anymore,’ and don’t, then good on you. That is a tiny, tiny group of people.”
Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsula dailynews.com.