PORT ANGELES — Months into the coronavirus pandemic, North Olympic Peninsula law enforcement and public health experts are increasingly concerned with a pre-existing epidemic as they see increasing numbers of opioid drug overdoses.
At least one overdose has resulted in death on the Peninsula since Gov. Jay Inslee issued a “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order in late March.
Clallam County law enforcement and fire personnel responded to eight known heroin overdoses from January through March. That number rose to 19 overdose cases in April.
The Clallam County Health Department reports a similar uptick in overdose cases since the start of 2020.
“We have seen a significant rise in overdoses, more than double what we saw last year,” said Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer.
“From January (2019) to April 2019, Clallam County reported 25 overdoses and none were fatal,” she said. “This year, we have had 67 overdoses reported, and four of them have been fatal.”
Two of the deaths were in February, and one was reported in both March and April to the health department.
Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team Detective Sgt. Josh Powless explained the differences in case numbers.
“Our numbers come from law enforcement responses to overdose cases,” he said. “As you can imagine, someone suffering an overdose or someone with someone who is overdosing, they may not want to have to report that to an officer. We do share our information with public health.”
Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said the county has not collected evidence of a similar rise in drug overdoses, but he added the warning signs for increased drug use are present.
“I think they are related, in truth,” Locke said of the pandemic and the opioid epidemic.
“The simple answer, we looked over the data that we have available, and we could not find evidence of such a rise.”
Unthank said a number of factors are playing into the rise of overdoses seen in Clallam County.
“We believe there has been a change in the supply chain, largely due to the travel restrictions,” she said.
“We think the drugs people are using are stronger, and there has been more need to use naloxone [medication that rapidly reverses opioid overdose],” Unthank said. “And we have seen positive results for fentanyl in testing strips.”
The health department’s information dovetails with what Olympic Peninsula Narcotics Enforcement Team (OPNET) is hearing from multiple sources.
“OPNET detectives talk to people at all levels of drug culture, from street-level users to dealers and distributors, and we have heard from lots and lots of sources that fentanyl is in our local product,” Powless said. “We have sent some samples off, but we don’t have any returns from the [State Patrol toxicology] lab yet.”
Unthank believes several factors related to the stay-home order are contributing to the increasing number of overdoses:
• Stress, job loss and social isolation, leading to worsening of underlying behavioral health disorders, relapse and increased use.
• Social distancing, leading to increased use alone.
• Decreased access to in-person behavioral health treatment and medication-assisted treatment.
Unthank said the Clallam County health department has a training planned this week for behavioral health providers.
“We are increasing our outreach to the community and we are conducting a training next week on how to resume behavioral health services in person and providing guidance for doing that safely,” she said.
“Many dealing with drug addiction don’t have phones or don’t have phone plans that allow for online meetings, they just have minutes,” Unthank said. “If our other health care offices are open, we can make this aspect of public health open as well.”
Clallam County was the first in the state to make opioid overdose deaths a reportable condition, beginning in 2016, after it was well above state average in opioid hospitalizations.
“We do get some data from emergency medical services and some death data that lags a few months behind,” Unthank said.
“But I have every reason to believe that this problem is getting worse. The risk factors for overdose are all going up. The protective factors, access to treatment programs, access to behavioral health services are all impaired due to lockdown measures.”
Locke said Jefferson County is part of a regional effort to resume in-person treatment and counseling services as soon as feasible.
Area resources to assist those in need of medication-assisted treatment include BAART Port Angeles at baartprograms.com/baart-programs-port-angeles and the North Olympic Health Network’s MAT program at tinyurl.com/PDN-NOHNMAT.
Jefferson County residents can call Jefferson Healthcare at 360-385-2200 for more information on MAT services.
For more information on preventing opioid overdose in the state, visit stopoverdose.org.
Sports reporter Michael Carman can be contacted at 360-406-0674 or [email protected].