PENINSULA — Washington and Oregon leaders are rolling out programs in and around Pacific County that aim to slow the spread of disease through drug use and curb the rising overdose death toll.
Law enforcement leaders and medical experts are expanding access across the county to a lifesaving antidote that can reverse an overdose of heroin, oxycodone or other opioids, natural and synthetic pain-relieving drugs that are derived from the opium poppy.
Across the Columbia River, public health officials are working to reduce harm caused by addiction by opening two sites in Clatsop County where dirty needles can be exchanged for clean ones.
Overdoses now kill more people than traffic collisions.
The National Safety Council counts 567 traffic fatalities across Washington in 2015. Annual data from the state Department of Health shows 718 people died from opioid overdoses.
Nationwide, deaths involving the use of the pain-relieving drugs have quadrupled since 1999, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Opioids, such as fentanyl and morphine, were involved in 33,091 fatal overdoses in 2015. Preliminary data indicate an increase to about 60,000 in 2016.
The CDC found the amount of painkillers prescribed during the year was enough for every American to be medicated around the clock for three weeks.
A syphilis outbreak spurred Clatsop County officials to start working on ways to reduce the spread of diseases through the sharing of syringes, Public Health Director Michael McNickle said. Two needle exchanges are expected to open on Aug. 31, one in downtown Astoria and another in the Knappa area.
Nurses at the sites will pass out a clean syringe for every used one they collect. Specific times and locations have not been released.
McNickle is finalizing details and plans to announce them on the Clatsop County Public Health Facebook page.
He said not all authorities agree with the idea of providing clean syringes for illegal drug use, but law enforcement has agreed not to interfere by busting people at the exchanges. However, he said, they will shut down them down if they see drug use or paraphernalia other than syringes at the sites.
“None of us want anyone to be addicted,” McNickle said. “We’re resigning to the fact that this is necessary.”
A $50,000 donation from Friends of Columbia Community Health will pay for the first six months of the program. The needles will be counted to help determine whether it’s possible to continue the exchanges, which will be the first to open on the North Coast, McNickle said.
There are 17 others in Washington and nine in Oregon, according to the North American Syringe Exchange Network. However, the program closest to the Peninsula is run on Friday afternoons in Kelso, almost a two-hour drive from downtown Long Beach.
Peninsula Pharmacies co-owner Tom Sutherland said he can sell syringes without a prescription but he usually doesn’t. He isn’t comfortable supplying them for illegal drug use.
Sutherland said his six stores will take used needles and syringes and dispose of them safely. But he leaves it up to each pharmacist to decide whether to sell them to people who don’t have a condition that requires medication injections, such as diabetes.
The pharmacist since 1985 is working on another way to reduce harm caused by addiction. He’s rolling out a program to expand local access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose if it is given quickly.
The most dire consequences of addiction can be prevented by making the lifesaving antidote available when and where it’s needed, Sutherland said.
“Our goal is to get it into the hands of the family members and caregivers,” who are dealing with drug users, he said.
The Federal Drug Administration has approved three forms of naloxone, an injectable liquid, a nasal spray and an EpiPen-like device that can be used to deliver a dose by people who don’t have medical training.
Pharmacists in Washington can now dispense naloxone to anyone who wants to have it on hand. Sutherland is working to help educate people about the three forms of drug that are available and show them how to use the one that best suits their needs.
“They’re all on the expensive side. That’s kind of typical when you have something that’s needed,” Sutherland said. “The good news is I am seeing more insurance companies willing to pay for the medicine.”
The retail price is about $170 for Narcan, naloxone that comes in kits of two pre-filled doses that can be sprayed into the drug user’s nostril to stop an overdose fatality.
Pacific County Sheriff Scott Johnson got a grant that will allow deputies to start carrying the pricy antidote soon. He expects the money from the National Sheriffs’ Institute to cover the cost of the Narcan kits for about two years.
With the lacking availability of treatment for substance abuse and mental illnesses, law enforcement officers are often left to handle problems caused by those who are struggling with addiction.
“It’s almost like a long-term death sentence,” Johnson said. “Just like we see with mental health, they don’t get the help they need.”
The county has responded to 53 calls to 911 for possible overdoses since January 2016, coordinator Tim Martindale Jr. said. That count does not include those that were determined by emergency responders after arriving on scene to help with a call for someone who was having trouble breathing, or was found unconscious or dead.
Although medical-aid crews usually show up before law enforcement, Johnson said, training deputies to quickly spot signs of an overdose and stop it with the antidote could make a difference.
“If we can save even one life, it’s worth it,” he said.
‘[Opioid addiction]’s almost like a long-term death sentence. Just like we see with mental health, they don’t get the help they need.’
Sheriff Scott Johnson