PORT ANGELES — An unsolicited 21-month, $190,659 grant from the University of Washington will help the Clallam and Jefferson county health departments track what drugs are circulating locally to help determine what antidotes to use for overdoses.
“A couple of months ago, we were approached by the University of Washington’s Addictions Drug and Alcohol Institute to participate in a comprehensive drug checking project,” said Karissa McLane, public health nurse supervisor for Clallam County.
“It will provide our office with a mass spectrometer machine, which checks people’s drugs to see what substances are in them.
“It’s a really important tool to help people understand what the drug supply looks like and help us get ahead of response to overdoses,” she told Clallam County commissioners at their Dec. 12 work session.
The grant will cover the machine and its operational costs, including staff time and data analysis, Dr. Allison Berry, the health officer for Clallam and Jefferson counties, wrote in an email.
McLane said they will partner with Jefferson County on the project.
“They didn’t have the capacity to take this on on their own,” McLane said. “So our commitment is to bring the machine out to them once a week so they can do testing out there as well.”
Berry said they plan to share the data with partners in both counties.
“There is, as you can imagine, quite a bit of overlap in drug use patterns between Clallam and Jefferson counties, and this will be one part of better understanding that,” she wrote in an email.
McLane said one of the biggest challenges in responding to the overdose crisis is understanding what people are consuming because that’s changing rapidly within our drug supply.
“For example, fentanyl has risen in the drug supply significantly over recent years, which really changes how overdoses look and how people experience them,” she said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. It is a major contributor to fatal and nonfatal overdoses in the United States.
The UW Institute conducted a somewhat broad outreach to the state’s counties but specifically targeted Clallam because of its incredibly high overdose rate, McLane told the commissioners.
A graphic from the state Department of Health showing drug overdose mortality by county from 2016-2020 groups Clallam together with Snohomish, Pierce and Grays Harbor counties as having the highest rates in the state.
“We also tend to see differences in our drug supply than most of the I-5 corridor,” McLane said. “So, for example, earlier this year we were hearing and seeing some spikes in zylazine, which is an animal anesthetic, and it complicates overdoses significantly.”
“It works alongside the opioid to create a stronger high so it is more likely for people to overdose from, but Narcan doesn’t work on it so it is harder to revive an overdose,” she said.
The Clallam County health department learned about zylazine because of some of its community partners that were drug testing in people who were in treatment, McLane said.
“So we have just a very volatile drug supply locally, and then we have an incredibly high overdose rate. So I think that’s why they specifically reached out to us,” she said.
Clallam County Public Health Director Kevin LoPiccolo wrote in a staff memo: “Information gained from this project will allow the public health team to inform public health education and programming for overdose prevention at the local level.”
“It will also contribute to a statewide public health response to emerging overdose risks informing policy decisions that will impact our community.”
The plan is conducting 20 samples per month for the first two months, increasing to 60 samples per month for the grant’s remaining 19 months, according to the memo. Methods for judging the program’s effectiveness will be developed as data are gathered and the public health department gains a better understanding of the local drug supply, it stated.
Reporter Brian Gawley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.