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Fentanyl could be declared a public health crisis in King County in new proposal

King County is on track to set another record in fentanyl deaths in 2022. The 249 deaths mark a 43% increase compared to this time last year.

KING COUNTY, Wash. — Editor's note: The above video on UW's study finding fentanyl use was up in Washington state originally aired March 9, 2022. 

A proposal to declare fentanyl a public health crisis in King County is nearing full approval.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn's legislation unanimously passed the Council's Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday. Now the legislation will be sent to the full King County Council for final approval in the next few weeks, according to a release. 

King County is on track to set another record in fentanyl deaths in 2022. The 249 deaths so far this year mark a 43% increase compared to this time last year when there were 396 reported fentanyl overdoses. 

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In the last year, the number of people who died from fentanyl overdose more than doubled, according to the King County Medical Examiner Office’s Fatal Overdose Dashboard.

Credit: King County Medical Examiner

After declaring a public health crisis, the proposed legislation would have Public Health – Seattle & King County increase efforts to reduce fentanyl-related deaths.

“The spread of fentanyl through our communities is nothing short of heartbreaking and tragic, claiming the lives of too many people—sons, daughters, sisters, brothers—across our county,” Dunn said in a statement. “This is an urgent issue that demands we dedicate our full attention and resources to reverse the current trend of deaths from fentanyl continuing to soar year over year.”  

Credit: King County Medical Examiner

A survey from the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drugs and Alcohol Institute (ADAI) revealed a stark increase in the intentional use of the deadly opioid fentanyl across the state.

The biennial survey involved nearly 1,000 people using syringe-service program sites who were asked a series of questions in the fall.

Last year’s results revealed that the use of fentanyl increased 18% since 2019, with 42% of respondents saying they used the illicit drug in the previous three months. Two-thirds of respondents said they used the drug knowingly, which the lead researcher with the institute said is a significant change from several years ago when most fentanyl use was unintentional.

The survey was backed up by data from the Seattle Police Department, indicating officers seized nearly 650,000 fentanyl-based pills in 2021. That total was 63,000 in 2020. Less than 200 fentanyl pills were seized in 2018.

“I've been doing drug-trends research for 20 years and fentanyl’s growth is the biggest, fastest shift we've ever seen and also the most lethal,” said Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, the principal research scientist with the ADAI.

King County launched a pilot program in March to help people in the event of a fentanyl overdose. In the pilot's first three weeks, Eastside Fire & Rescue provided three Naloxone Leave-Behind Kits, which help bring people out of respiratory arrest if they are overdosing on opioids. 

To further disincentivize the sale of fentanyl, King County prosecutors also started going after the drug dealers themselves and charging them after fatal overdoses.

The prosecutor's office charged three people with "Controlled Substance Homicide" in 2021 through October. Only two were charged in 2019 and 2020.

"Typically, we go out and make seizures, but now we are using many of our detective resources to work back up the chain," said Sgt. Tim Meyer. "If you are going to try and sell this stuff, we're going to find you."

The Drug Enforcement Administration said fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Many users are unaware that they are ingesting fentanyl, which is often disguised to look like legitimate prescription pain relievers or added to heroin without the user’s knowledge, according to the DEA. Fentanyl is deadly in very small doses because of its high potency. 

Roughly one in every three pills in drug seizures contains enough of the drug to kill someone on the first dose, according to the King County Sheriff's Office.


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