Tag: fentanyl

King County is on Pace for a Record Year of Overdose Deaths

Overdoses in King County, 2012 (L) and 2021 (R)
Overdoses in King County, 2012 (L) and 2021 (R)

By Andrew Engelson

Tricia Howe, who directs an outreach program for drug users at REACH, Evergreen Treatment Services’ homeless outreach program, had firsthand experience of King County’s overdose crisis earlier this summer. In a matter of weeks, there were two overdoses outside REACH’s Belltown office.

“One of our case managers came into my office and said, “I think there’s somebody outside who doesn’t look like they’re breathing,” Howe said. “I grabbed a whole bunch of Narcan out of my drawer and ran outside.”

The man’s lips were blue, Howe said, and he wasn’t breathing, though he did have a pulse. She gave him a standard dose of naloxone nasal spray (Narcan), which can reverse the effect of opioids and restore a person’s breathing, but he failed to revive. So Howe gave him a second dose. “He took one deep breath, but was still not responsive,” she said. As Howe was preparing to administer a third dose, first responders arrived, put the man on oxygen, and he finally started breathing.

Based on the man’s response, fentanyl was almost certainly involved. The drug, which is up to 50 times more potent than heroin, can cause overdoses even among frequent opioid users. According to Howe, because fentanyl is cheaper to manufacture, it is quickly replacing heroin and oxycontin as the primary drug available to people who use opioids.

Data from the Washington State Patrol shows that the share of fentanyl in King County drug seizures has climbed dramatically, from around 10 instances in 2018 to more than 100 in 2021. Howe said that all of the counterfeit oxycodone (OxyContin) pills her staff have recently tested have been positive for fentanyl.

“It’s so available now and people are actually seeking it out at this point, where that was not the case before.” According to Howe, because fentanyl is cheaper to manufacture, it is quickly replacing heroin and oxy, and is making overdoses more common and more difficult to reverse. 

Though former mayor Ed Murray expressed early support for what would have been the first such sanctioned site in the US, Jenny Durkan’s administration showed little enthusiasm for supervised consumption. Durkan downgraded the plan in 2019 to a single site in a mobile van, citing concerns about the Trump administration’s legal action against a proposed consumption site in Philadelphia. 

A 2017 study showed that 83 percent of fentanyl overdoses in Massachusetts required a second dose of naloxone. Howe notes that overdoses of heroin or oxy were easier to reverse than fentanyl. “In the past, you could definitely expect the person to wake up and almost walk away,” says Howe.

Seattle and King County are in the midst of a severe overdose death crisis that began to spike during the pandemic and shows no sign of abating. People without shelter are particularly at risk. A ten-year study published in September by the King County Medical Examiner’s Office and Public Health Seattle-King County found that that accidental deaths nearly quadrupled  between 2012 and 2021 among people living unsheltered, and that overdoses now account for 71 percent of such deaths. 

As of last week, according to King County Public Health, there had been at least 710 fatal overdoses in the county this year. Of those, at least 473 involved fentanyl. That number has already eclipsed last year’s 708 overdose deaths, including 385 caused by fentanyl.

“When we first started our heroin and opioid task force in 2015, there were three fentanyl overdose deaths,” said Brad Finegood, a strategic advisor at the public health department. “The numbers have grown exponentially.”

Drug users tried to avoid fentanyl when it first arrived on the West Coast, Finegood said, but that attitude has dramatically shifted, and now people are actively seeking out fentanyl. According to a Pew study published in 2019 on drug use in San Francisco, more than half of opioid drug users now actively seek it, despite the dangers. Complicating matters, fentanyl is either smoked or vaporized and then inhaled, so traditional initiation barriers have fallen away.

“For younger people who are experimenting with drugs,” Finegood said, “that makes it much more feasible because they don’t have to use a needle.” Public Health and REACH have had to counter the misinformed belief that fentanyl is safer because it’s smoked rather than injected.

According to the US Department of Justice, most fentanyl originates in China and is made into pills or powders by cartels based in Mexico. Batches of fentanyl that are poorly blended can result in what Finegood calls the “chocolate chip cookie effect,” in which pockets of higher concentrations cause accidental overdose.

A young man named Ian who was living in an encampment near the Home Depot in the Bitter Lake neighborhood said in August that he had no choice but to start using fentanyl. Originally from Wasilla, Alaska, Ian said he first became addicted to opioids while taking Oxycontin for pain. “Then oxy disappeared,” he said. In 2016, the CDC advised doctors to lower prescription levels of oxycodone and this, combined with the Drug Enforcement Agency’s recent crackdown on illegal and fraudulent prescriptions, has made medical-grade pills rare.

Ian said that in the absence of oxy, he did heroin for a while. “Then that disappeared. Now it’s all fetty.”

Half a dozen people at the encampment told me they use fentanyl and know many others who do. Nearly everyone had witnessed overdoses and several said they knew people who’d died.

“Everyone’s doing fetty,” said Jessie, who’s 26 and has been using drugs, including meth, since she was 11 years old. She didn’t live in the Bitter Lake camp, but was helping a friend pack up their belongings before the city came to sweep the site. “I’ve been sober, but it didn’t last,” she said. When asked if she’d seen friends overdose, Jessie said, “Yeah, of course.”

The transformation of fentanyl from risky outlier to the opioid of choice in King County mirrors national trends. In 2021, fentanyl accounted for the majority of overdose deaths in the U.S, though methamphetamine continues to be a close second, both nationally and locally. 

Although Seattle, King County, and the cities of Renton and Auburn formed an opiate overdose task force in 2015, local leaders have shelved a key recommendation from the task force’s report: establishing two supervised consumption sites in King County. 

Seattle could have been home to the first such sanctioned site in the U.S., following the lead of Vancouver, B.C. and 200 other sites currently operating elsewhere in Canada, Europe and Australia.

Though former mayor Ed Murray expressed early support for what would have been the first such sanctioned site in the US, Jenny Durkan’s administration showed little enthusiasm for supervised consumption. Durkan downgraded the plan in 2019 to a single site in a mobile van, citing concerns about the Trump administration’s legal action against a proposed consumption site in Philadelphia. 

“It’s a no-brainer. If you don’t want people to use right in front of you and you don’t want needles all over your parks, then you’ve got to give people a place where they can go.”—Tricia Howe, REACH

Even as the Biden administration changed course and said it would consider allowing sites, neither Durkan nor Mayor Bruce Harrell followed through on the scaled-back plan. Earlier this year, New York City moved past Seattle and opened two safe consumption sites that have already succeeded in preventing 500 deaths.

Kris Nyrop, who spent two decades working on HIV prevention among drug users in Seattle and helped design Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, says the window for action in King County is quickly closing.

“We have two years,” Nyrop said. “Biden is not going to prosecute if Seattle moves forward. So how do we get Mayor Harrell and a majority of the council behind this?”

In fact, Councilmember Lisa Herbold added $1.1 million to the 2021 Human Services Department budget to create safe consumption spaces in existing social services facilities. The city did not move forward on that approach and Harrell’s proposed 2023-2024 budget does not fund it. 

Instead, Mayor Harrell has vowed to crack down on people who sell and use drugs, in a highly publicized effort to target “hot spots” such as the intersection of 12th and Jackson in Little Saigon. Anyone walking through the area today can see that this short-term strategy was ineffective at reducing public drug use and sales in the area.

Howe said that the only effective way to reduce visible drug use on the street isn’t more policing, but sanctioned consumption sites. “It’s a no-brainer. … If you don’t want people to use right in front of you and you don’t want needles all over your parks, then you’ve got to give people a place where they can go.”

In the absence of sanctioned sites, Public Health has been quietly moving forward on other, lower-profile strategies aimed at empowering drug users to consume drugs as safely as possible. 

In addition to social media campaigns to educate young people about the extremely high risks of fentanyl pills (“blues”), Finegood says Public Health is doing more targeted educational outreach to users about safer consumption practices. 

This includes training drug users to recognize the symptoms of overdose, encouraging people not to use alone, and making the overdose reversal medication naloxone widely available. Finegood said Public Health has set up the first mail-order naloxone program in the country, and is working extensively with local pharmacies to offer the drug free, without a doctor’s prescription. “We’ve also set up a couple naloxone and fentanyl tester vending machines,” Finegood said. Continue reading “King County is on Pace for a Record Year of Overdose Deaths”

Amid Rising Fentanyl Deaths, Seattle Libraries Prohibit Overdose Reversal Drug

Public naloxone rescue kit in Boston, MA
Public naloxone rescue kit in Boston, MA

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Public Library has advised library staff not to carry or use naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug sold under the brand name Narcan. As a matter of policy, the library does not stock Narcan or train workers to use it.

In an email to library staff last week, a representative from the union that represents most library employees, AFSCME 2083, wrote that “the City has been very clear that they believe Good Samaritan protections do not apply to public employees administering Narcan. In light of that liability concern, we have now been informed that any employees who administer Narcan on duty may be subject to discipline, unless they are explicitly directed to do so.”

“While these employer directives are in effect—in particular the new directive NOT to administer Narcan—Local 2083 cannot support member administration of Narcan on the job,” the email continued.

The union, which did not respond to a request for comment, sent the email to its members after an unidentified library staffer informed their boss that they were bringing Narcan to work. The drug, most commonly administered as a nasal spray, temporarily reverses the effects of an opiate overdose by blocking the effects of the opiate and causing an overdose victim to start breathing again.

“[The city attorney’s] legal guidance is that a staff member, who is in a paid capacity as Library employee, is likely not covered by the law and would subsequently expose themselves and the Library to liability for injury or death resulting from inappropriately administering Narcan.”—Seattle Public Library spokeswoman

Washington State’s original Good Samaritan law, adopted in 1975 and amended several times since, says that “Any person, including but not limited to a volunteer provider of emergency or medical services, who without compensation or the expectation of compensation renders emergency care at the scene of an emergency … shall not be liable for civil damages resulting from any act or omission in the rendering of such emergency care.”

A separate law adopted in 2015 created a “standing order” allowing “any person or entity” to obtain a prescription for opiate reversal medication, such as Narcan, and use it for overdose reversal without threat of criminal or civil liability for administering overdose-reversal drugs or for any outcome that happen as as result.

A spokeswoman for the Seattle Public Library, Elisa Murray, said the library asked the City Attorney’s Office if library workers would be protected by the Good Samaritan laws. “Their legal guidance is that a staff member, who is in a paid capacity as Library employee, is likely not covered by the law and would subsequently expose themselves and the Library to liability for injury or death resulting from inappropriately administering Narcan.” Murray said the initial advice came from former city attorney Pete Holmes’ office and was subsequently confirmed by the office of current City Attorney Ann Davison.

“Bringing medicine to the workplace with the intent to administer it while working is outside of a staff member’s assigned work duties and against the Library’s direction related to Narcan,” Murray continued. The library has no plans to train staffers to use Narcan or stock the drug at library branches, “based on the Seattle Fire Department’s medical support expertise and response times.” In other words, it’s up to the Fire Department, which—like the police department—is facing staffing shortages, to respond to overdose calls on time.

The library gave a similar explanation for its decision not to stock naloxone back in 2020, when then-mayor Jenny Durkan handed out hundreds of naloxone kits to local businesses and schools in response to an uptick in overdoses from fentanyl, an opiate that is many times more potent than heroin. On Tuesday, the King County Council declared fentanyl a public health crisis. Last year, the county medical examiner confirmed that nearly 400 overdose deaths involved fentanyl; so far this year, the number of confirmed fentanyl deaths is 272. Overall, opiates have been implicated in nearly 450 deaths this year.

The Seattle Public School District stocks naloxone at every school and trains school nurses, security staff, and school administrators in how to administer the drug.

As public agencies go, SPL is in some ways an outlier. Staff at other public agencies in Seattle carry naloxone, as do other public libraries around the country, including Everett’s public library system.

For example, the Seattle Public School District stocks naloxone at every school, according to SPS prevention and intervention manager Lisa Davidson. The district also trains school nurses, security staff, and school administrators—along with anyone else who wants training—in overdose response. Most schools have multiple “designated trained responders,” according to Davidson, and district policy allows individual employees to get their own prescriptions for naloxone and use it as long as they’ve been trained to do so.

The school district’s policy also notes that under the state’s “standing order” law, “a person who possesses, stores, distributes, or administers an opioid overdose reversal medication is not subject to criminal or civil liability or disciplinary action if they acted in good faith and with reasonable care.”

The King County Library System’s naloxone policy, however, is similar to Seattle’s: “staff are not permitted to administer Narcan,” , KCLS spokeswoman Sarah Thomas said, and are supposed to call 911 if they see a patron in medical distress “KCLS does not have a policy on Narcan use,” Thomas said. Continue reading “Amid Rising Fentanyl Deaths, Seattle Libraries Prohibit Overdose Reversal Drug”

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”