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Opioid poisoning rates increase in Pierce County, following state and national trends.

Opioid poisonings in Pierce County are trending higher than previous years in the first half of 2021. The state Department of Health (DOH) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report similar trends across Washington and the U.S. 

People can use opioids for multiple reasons. Some are prescribed for medical purposes, while others use it to cope with different stressors (trauma, depression and anxiety, etc.). Recent events (the current COVID-19 pandemic, and racial strife) have also contributed to the increase in opioid use.    

Other factors influencing the recent increase in drug poisonings is an increasingly unsafe illegal drug supply. As illegal drugs are not regulated, people who buy and sell them at the street-level often don’t know the content of their product. They think they are buying one substance and end up with another, potentially more dangerous product. 

Fentanyl is poisoning the street-level drug supply. 

Fentanyl is a strong and fast-acting opioid used to manage severe pain. It is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. It is manufactured pharmaceutically and illicitly. You can’t detect it by look, smell, or taste. Those in the illegal drug trade are adding illicit fentanyl to street-level drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and counterfeit prescription pills. Currently, illicit drug suppliers are pressing fentanyl into fake prescription opioid medication. According to the DOH, these pills are blue and are marked with M and 30. They contain fentanyl, with purity and potency varying widely.

Poisonings involving fentanyl in Pierce County

Data source: Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, Received July 23rd, 2021.

According to preliminary data from the Pierce County Medical Examiner’s Office, there were 55 confirmed and suspected fentanyl related deaths from January-June of this year. While these deaths are still preliminary, it represents an increase from 34 known deaths in 2020 and 11 in 2019. At the state level, DOH has reported 418 poisonings (191 of which are linked to fentanyl) in the first 3 months of 2021 compared to 378 poisonings (fentanyl and non-fentanyl) for the same period in 2020.

While alarming, it is important to keep this data in context. These deaths involve both medical and non-medical fentanyl use. Additionally, these deaths include those where the primary cause of death involved fentanyl, as well as those where it was a contributing factor or if any trace of fentanyl was present. Finally, the change of Pierce County medical examiners in 2020 make comparisons over time difficult, as different examiners may use different methodologies in classifying deaths.

Addressing the issue.

Pierce County addresses the opioid crisis and substance misuse through naloxone and fentanyl test strip distribution, access to medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD), and cross-sector partnerships.

  • Naloxone (often referred to as the brand name Narcan) is an opioid poisoning reversal medication. Fentanyl test strips test substances for fentanyl. You can access naloxone at community-based organizations and pharmacies for free and without a prescription. See StopOverdose.org for locations that provide naloxone and instructions on how to use it, as well as a page specifically about fentanyl. Contact the Tacoma Needle Exchange at https://www.tacomaneedleexchange.org for fentanyl test strips and other harm reduction services.
  • Medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD) such as methadone, buprenorphine, and naltrexone are covered by insurance including Medicaid. They are available in low barrier, community-based settings and at the Health Department’s Treatment Services Program. These medications can cut the risk of a fatal opioid overdose in half and support long-term recovery. If interested in treatment, see the Washington Recovery Helpline, or call (866) 789-1511.
  • Pierce County Opioid Task Force (OTF), a joint effort between Pierce County, City of Tacoma, and Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, is a regional response to the opioid crisis. The task force promotes positive behavioral health and well-being and works to reduce stigma. The OTF’s committees focus on prevention, education, access to treatment and transportation, and connecting people with the right services at the right time. To join the Opioid Task Force, contact Chelsea Amato at camato@tpchd.org or (253) 720-7483.
  • The Health Department is developing a Drug Poisoning and Unusual Reactions Response (DPURR) that leads surveillance, communication and coordination efforts when there are marked increases in death and/or hospitalizations related to poisoning or unusual reactions during drug use. Currently, we are working on a cross-sector plan to respond to the sudden rise in fentanyl poisonings.

Call to action!  Join the Pierce County Overdose Awareness Campaign.

Help plan Pierce County’s weeklong Overdose Awareness Campaign as part of Aug. 31 International Overdose Awareness Day. If you are interested in joining the campaign planning workgroup or holding your own awareness activities, Contact Chelsea Amato at camato@tpchd.org or Stephanie Wood at swood@tpchd.org.

Opioid overdose deaths represent precious and vital lives of our beloved friends, family, and community members. Now more than ever, it is imperative to hold each other close, carry naloxone, and know about the community resources available such as Crisis Connections’ 24hr Crisis Line  at (866) 427-4747.