Drop in Clallam County opioid deaths attributed to naloxone

PORT ANGELES — The number of opioid-related deaths per year in Clallam County dropped by 80 percent last year, likely due to the increasing amount of naloxone in the community.

“While we have the same amount of overdoses, fewer people are dying,” said Dr. Allison Berry Unthank, Clallam County health officer. “People are not dying at the rates they were before.”

The numbers are clear: 31 overdoses were reported in 2017 and 30 overdoses were reported in 2018, but during the same time opioid-related deaths fell from 10 in 2017 to two in 2018.

In 2016, there were 16 opioid-related deaths and 62 overdoses.

Clallam County became the first county in the state to have mandatory overdose reporting in 2016. It collects data quarterly from Olympic Medical Center, Forks Community Hospital, the Clallam County Coroner and the county’s syringe exchange program.

As more naloxone — commonly known by the brand name Narcan — has become more prevalent in the community, fewer people have been going to the hospital after an overdose.

When people use naloxone, a drug that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses, they often go to the syringe exchange to get another dose. That’s how many overdoses have been reported, she said.

For that reason, last year the county saw more overdoses being reported through the syringe exchange than it had in the past.

Unthank believes that the overdoses are under-reported, but that the trends are likely still accurate.

She said not everyone who has a supply of naloxone gets the drug from the syringe exchange. Some also get it from their primary care providers or just purchase it from the pharmacy.

About half of the overdoses have been from prescription drugs, not heroin, she said. Most overdoses are unintentional.

“That’s a part of the epidemic that gets under-reported,” she said. “People think overdoses are always heroin.”

Many first responders in Clallam County carry naloxone for when they respond to overdoses.

The Clallam County Sheriff’s Office this month became the most recent agency to carry the drug. Others include the Port Angeles Police Department, Forks Police Department and the Makah, Lower Elwha and Quileute tribal police, who have documented numerous lives saved since starting their programs.

Clallam County has also seen a decrease in the amount of opioid prescriptions. Clallam County medical providers were prescribing opioid-based pills at three times the state average two years ago while now area providers are now prescribing opioids at less than twice the state average.

Unthank said another stat that stood out to her is the number of people who use the syringe exchange who want to get off drugs.

Nearly 80 percent of syringe exchange participants who participated in a 2017 survey said they wanted help to reduce or quit opioid use.

“It’s a misconception they don’t care about their health,” Unthank said. “It’s hard to get into treatment.”

Unthank said that despite county-wide efforts to increase access to treatment, it still isn’t possible to get people into treatment when they are ready.

Instead of waiting months, people now wait weeks, she said. Despite the improvement, she said more needs to be done.

“A person who wants to get sober needs access in 24 hours if they are going to get sober,” she said. “That’s something that’s on my list of things to do going forward, is getting people access to treatment more quickly.”

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Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 56250, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

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