Beating the region’s heroin epidemic first requires keeping people struggling from addiction alive.
The region’s heroin and opioid crisis continues to be a thief in the night, robbing lives and stealing futures.
In less than three hours last Saturday, we got a reminder of that epidemic. Just before noon, a man and woman died, side by side, in a car on Aurora Avenue North. A 22-year-old woman overdosed at a house a few blocks away, and a 27-year-old man was found dead just minutes later farther north on Aurora.
Those overdose deaths made news because Seattle police, suspecting hyper-potent fentanyl was mixed in heroin, tried to warn users. Meanwhile, a 45-year-old woman recently died in Renton; toxicology reports are pending, but an overdose was suspected. There have been many others before, and, sadly there will be more deaths soon.
These tragedies cut across every demographic. On Sunday, the News Tribune of Tacoma documented how the son of a local fire chief overdosed after he became a firefighter himself.
Overdoses are Washington state’s leading cause of accidental death, surpassing car accidents. But our response to these preventable tragedies must not become routine.
Simple acts can save lives.
Naloxone, a drug that immediately counteracts the effects of overdose, must continue to be widely distributed because people struggling with addiction can only get to treatment if they’re still alive. That means we should be putting Naloxone kits in the hands of everyone who comes in regular contact with heroin and opioid users.
Public Health — Seattle & King County has distributed, for free, 1,558 kits of Naloxone; kits are available at many pharmacies in the central Puget Sound (go to stopoverdose.org for a list). In Snohomish County, a communitywide effort, recognized by the White House, has trained nearly 1,000 people working for police, schools, housing providers and other agencies.
Law enforcement agencies — frequently the first line of defense against overdoses — have stepped up. Since April 2015, Snohomish County law enforcement officers carrying Naloxone have counted 68 “saves.” In Seattle, bike patrols have saved 15 lives from overdose just this year.
Naloxone kits should still be more widely distributed. Law enforcement agencies in King County are talking about equipping more officers with kits.
But families are most often the sentinels of potential overdoses. The state “good Samaritan” law wisely exempts from prosecution anyone who administers Naloxone or calls 911 to report an overdose; the person overdosing is exempt too. You don’t get in trouble for doing the right thing.
The next steps for overdose prevention should include discussion about government-sanctioned injection sites, facilities where users can use drugs with medical and outreach staff on hand. A King County task force on the heroin and opioid crisis recommended opening several “Community Health Engagement Locations” because research showed they are literal live-savers.
It’s a radical notion with a common sense mission: keep people alive long enough to get to treatment.