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A new reality: The impact of opioids on Skagit County

Skagit Valley Herald - 4/14/2019

April 14-- Apr. 14--In Skagit County, the opioid epidemic has infiltrated not only jail cells and court rooms, but also schools, libraries and parks -- touching nearly every part of the community.

"It gets so overwhelming when we think about it," Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said. "The trend is so steep right now. What's it going to take to at least level it off before we can turn it around?"

Skagit County Coroner Hayley Thompson said that in 2018, 26 people in Skagit County died of opioid-related overdoses.

Most began their road to opioid addiction after being prescribed pain medication following an injury, she said.

"It's really sad when you dive into these people's histories," Thompson said. "None of them wished to be there. If you asked them, 'Is this the path you wished to be on?' I guarantee most of them would say no."

The issue

According to Skagit County Public Health estimates from 2017, 309 opioid-related overdoses were reported by various sources, including Emergency Medical Services, hospitals and community members, said Public Health communicable disease and epidemiology lead epidemiologist Lea Hamner.

"We know that this number is actually lower than the true number for several reasons," Hamner said in an email. "For example, some people come to on their own after an overdose and thus do not seek medical care. In other cases, patients or their family members may not report an opioid overdose due to fear or stigma."

In 2017, Thompson said, 17 people died of opioid-related overdoses.

In the first three months of this year, the Coroner's Office has responded to five confirmed and two suspected overdose deaths, Thompson said.

"The first two months we just seemed to have this influx, and it was making me really concerned at how the rest of the year is going to go," Thompson said.

Skagit County Sheriff's Office Sgt. Chris Kading, who supervises the Skagit County Interlocal Drug Enforcement Unit and the office's Proactive Team, said he wouldn't be surprised if that number rose to at least 20 by the end of the year.

"We are not slowing down," Kading said.

While heroin use in the county has remained steady during the past few years, the county recently has seen an influx in opioids in the form of pills, namely 30 mg Percocet pills, known as "Perc 30s," he said.

"I could go out right now and in 10 minutes buy Perc 30s," Kading said.

Even more dangerous, he said, is the increase in Perc 30s that contain fentanyl, a synthetic opioid the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine.

Because these counterfeit Perc 30 pills are made by a variety of people in a variety of places, it is impossible to know how much fentanyl is in each pill -- if the buyer even knows at all.

A dosage of fentanyl the size of two grains of salt is enough to be fatal, according to the Sheriff's Office.

"It's become extremely prevalent," Kading said. "(And) the recovery rate is zero."

In January 2018, Skagit County, the cities of Burlington, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley as well as the La Conner, Mount Vernon and Sedro-Woolley school districts were among those that filed a federal lawsuit against several large pharmaceutical companies.

"Put simply, the effects of the opioid epidemic impose human and financial costs at all levels," the lawsuit claims. "Opioids have reshaped daily reality in Skagit County."

Between 2012 and 2016, the lawsuit states, 66 individuals -- about one a month -- died from an opioid-related overdose in Skagit County.

"One is too many," Skagit County Undersheriff Chad Clark said.

The Swinomish Indian Tribal Community filed a similar suit in July 2018.

The impact

The epidemic is changing the way people live in Skagit County.

In Burlington, Sexton said the city has had to install sharps disposal containers in many of its public places -- including the library -- and in most of its city vehicles.

At a recent needle exchange program sponsored by Phoenix Recovery Services, Sexton said he was told the organization takes in about 25,000 used needles a week.

"That's 1.3 million a year in a county of 125,000 people," Sexton said. "And those are just the ones being exchanged. It doesn't include the ones being found in our parks, in our libraries."

Citywide, staff have had to be trained in proper disposal of needles, he said.

"When you look at a city like Burlington and we are forced to put sharps containers in our public library because of heroin needles being left, that says a lot about the opioid epidemic," Sexton said. "As a parent of four kids, it terrifies me."

According to the 2018 Healthy Youth Survey, 4.5% of Skagit County 10th graders reported using a painkiller in the past month to get high, Hamner said.

"It cuts across all populations of our community," said Sedro-Woolley School District Superintendent Phil Brockman. "It is awful, and it does not just affect the person who is addicted. It affects their whole community -- their friends, their family -- everyone. And it's life or death."

In the first three months of 2019, law enforcement officials countywide have responded to at least 31 overdose calls, said Clark.

The regularity with which county sheriff's deputies come into contact with suspected overdose victims, especially in rural parts of the county where medical aid may be delayed, caused the Sheriff's Office to begin carrying naloxone -- a drug used to reverse the effects of opioid overdoses -- about four years ago, Clark said.

"We're closer and we could get to them quicker and save someone's life," Clark said of deputies stationed in rural areas. "And we have."

Now, Kading said the Sheriff's Office is responding faster and with more resources, especially if deputies think fentanyl is involved.

In 2016, the department re-formed its Proactive team with the intent to address things such as property crimes and trends.

"What we found was that it all came back related to drugs," Clark said. "Almost 100% of the time."

Now, Kading said, that team works hand in hand with the county's drug enforcement team in an effort to use those who commit low-level crimes to get to higher-level drug dealers.

"People aren't stealing power tools so they can sell them so they can pay their phone bill," Kading said. "We're out there trying to catch the really bad guys that are selling this poison into our community."

In the first 15 years of his career, Mount Vernon police Lt. Greg Booth said his department referred one controlled substance homicide case to the Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney's Office.

"Those have always historically been nearly impossible to put together," Booth said. "We know the local networks a little bit more now, and we're able to connect the dots and use some technology."

Today, four people are awaiting trial on charges of controlled substance homicide in the deaths of four people, Skagit County Prosecuting Attorney Rich Weyrich said.

Courts are spending more time addressing drug issues and those that stem from drug issues, such as property crimes, Skagit County Superior Court Presiding Judge Brian Stiles said.

"I see a lot of dysfunction where a drug addiction is, followed by behaviors that impact the health care system, families, employers and communities," he said.

Stiles said the issue has spilled into family court, where due to drug abuse parents can lose custody of their children.

"Ultimately, it impacts us all," he said. "It's a problem everyone should take interest in because of these issues."

The link between drugs and crime is such that the Skagit County Community Justice Center spends at least $24,000 per year treating inmates for symptoms of opioid withdrawal and at least $120,000 a year transporting inmates to receive more in-depth care, according to the lawsuit.

"We're not solving the problem by booking everybody into jail," Clark said. "Jail is not the place for them and we recognize that, but sometimes we have no other choice."

Sexton said it's not what he envisioned when discussions about a new jail came up several years ago.

"I wish I could go back and say, 'No we're not going to build a new jail, we're going to build a 400-bed mental health and substance abuse facility,'" he said. "That's what we need."

-- Reporter Kera Wanielista: 360-416-2141, kwanielista@skagitpublishing.com, Twitter: @Kera_SVH, facebook.com/KeraReports

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