Pierce County ranks 4th in fentanyl overdoses

By Stephanie Valenti

From 2019 to the end of 2021, Washington had the fourth highest fentanyl positivity in the nation, with a 644 percent increase, according to new findings in Millennium Health’s “Signals Report.”

The analysis found that all five of the most populated counties in Washington have shown dramatic increases in illicit fentanyl positivity for the first half of 2022 compared to 2019, with Pierce County up 397 percent, the fourth highest among King County (717 percent), Snohomish County (454 percent), Spokane County (411 percent) and Clark County (249 percent).

Accessibility to drugs and alcohol, lack of mental healthcare, anguish from the pandemic are just some factors of what is causing the uptick in positive tests. When the pandemic was declared, positivity rates continued to go up, still not showing signs of declining or slowing down.

Tacoma Weekly spoke with with Dr. Kelly Olson from Millennium Health, based in San Diego, and she explained the effects of new data.

One of the biggest dangers of fentanyl is that as small as a milligram dose can be lethal for most people, according to officials in the DEA.

Olson has met with clinicians throughout Washington, with one stating “he believes he’s seen more relapses in the last six months than he has in years”

The risk of taking and overdosing on fentanyl is anywhere when taking illicit drugs, as there is always a possibility the product has more than what is advertised. There are many counterfeit pills being marketed.

One way people are consuming fentanyl is through authentic looking opioids with the drug being pressed onto it. Another way is one consuming cocaine for recreational purposes, unaware of how it may be mixed with fentanyl as well, and not waking up, according to Olson. There have been many reports of people smoking marijuana laced with the substance as well.

Methamphetamine use has impacted the West Coast for a long time, but the uptick in fentanyl use is relatively new. King County is the only county in Washington to declare the fentanyl overdoses as a public health crisis.

“It certainly increases the chance that we’re going to see changes,” said Olson about the declaration.

Officials are conducting a study to determine if fentanyl use is more intentional or unintentional.

“Scientists are going out with law enforcement to crime scenes, and they’re trying to determine based on the paraphernalia that’s found at the crime scene, and they compare it to the toxicology report,” explains Olson.

Fentanyl overdoses are seen in people of all demographics, without a specific demographic standing out as of now.

The drug cartels set the demand for their buyers. When they see a channel, they exploit it. Mixing substances with fentanyl and other things benefits the cartels. There is an increased likelihood of encountering counterfeit Washington because of the interstates that go north to south and west to east.

“Those are perfect highways for drugs to find their way in and out of certain states and counties and towns,” said Olson.

Researchers tested one million specimens from people in treatment facilities. They found many combinations of substance testing co-positive in 92 percent of results. It has been found in heroine, methamphetamine, cocaine, and even marijuana.

Despite the nationwide fentanyl crisis, different parts of the country will require different approaches to fight the crisis. Some parts need to start developing treatment centers, others may have them set and need to help people take advantage of those resources.

Substance use disorder facilities source Washington’s data. Other states collect data from general facilities or pain practice behavioral health centers. All data is solely based on individuals getting help.

At this point, illicit substances and precursors are being brought in from multiple places.

“I’ve been reading a fair bit as well about the northern border and how some of the precursors of fentanyl are filtering its way from the north to the south. At this point, we can’t count anybody out.”

Olson also met with Washingtonian clinicians who own a transportable treatment facility, allowing them to reach their clients where they are situated. Olson shares how tired and stressed her and her colleagues are from the deep research they are conducting to help fight against drug overdoses.

Experts are saying now is the best time to get treatment, and that treatments will only continue to improve. Millennium Health and other health experts are planting a seed of awareness everywhere they go.