Updated to clarify that Verdant has provided a grant to South Pathways to expand its needle exchange program but is not operating the program itself.
The opioid crisis is closer to home than many in Snohomish County realize, and the impacts are felt across the community. That was one takeaway from Thursday night’s virtual Opioid Roundtable hosted by the Verdant Health Commission.
Verdant Health Commission Board President Jim Distelhorst opened the meeting by sharing a 17-minute video about opioid usage in Snohomish County, where overdose deaths have risen by 20-30% since 2020. In 2020 alone, 525 Snohomish County residents died of an opioid overdose. Yakima County is the only other county in Washington with more opioid-related deaths.
Opioid use is not only harmful to users – it also hurts others in the community. For example, according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in three police officers will be stuck by a used needle in their career.
Lynnwood-based Verdant (read more about how it operates and is funded here) funds a range of health-related initiatives and also provided a grant to Sound Pathways to expand its Syringe Service Program (SSP) into South Snohomish County. The needle exchange program provides drug users with sterile injecting supplies, safe needle disposal, access to health care, treatment, testing and support.
Distelhorst pointed out that Sound Pathways is not handing out free needles, thus causing a larger supply of improperly disposed needles.
“People only receive the number of needles they turn in,” Distelhorst said.
This helps limit the number of needles in the community, as well as ensures as many needles as possible are getting properly disposed of, he said.
Another way Verdant has been addressing the opioid issue is by hosting Narcan training. Narcan is a nasal spray that, when administered, blocks the effects of an opioid overdose. In January, Verdant partnered with Molina Healthcare and Snohomish County Human Services to put on three training sessions that over 75 community members attended.
As a result, “there are now 75 more people in our community trained to recognize the signs of an overdose and administer Narcan,” Distelhorst said. “Each participant was given a Narcan kit to take home. Each kit contains two Narcan nasal sprays. This means there are now 150 more of these Narcan nasal sprays circulating in the community.”
Verdant is planning to hold additional Narcan training sessions in the coming months.
Roundtable speaker Linda Grant, CEO of Evergreen Recovery Center, said there is a stereotype that only teenagers use opioids, when that is actually not the case.
“We have to expand our thinking on how we address that,” Grant said. “About 70% of opioid deaths are people who are over age 30.”
Evergreen’s Naturopathic Physician Andrew Dzikowski said the clinic has seen a significant rise in relapse since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he added that Evergreen is working to be a place where patients feel they can come back if they need additional help.
“One of the things we are striving to have is regardless of whether or not you’ve relapsed or if you’re in recovery, we want to be a safe place for people to feel they can come back to, regardless of their situation, without any judgment,” he said. “And that’s what we are doing. We’re creating a safe, protected space for people to come at all stages of recovery and all stages of life and to help guide them into a safer environment with housing, counseling, therapy, medical management and a warm, loving touch.”
After the video, a question-and-answer session was held to address community questions.
Many commenters asked where teens can receive drug treatments and have access to programs like the SSP.
Distelhorst said the Center for Human Services offers outpatient treatments for teens. The center is a community-based nonprofit youth and family services agency that provides counseling and promotes drug and alcohol prevention. Northpoint Recovery, located in Bellevue, also offers treatment for children 12-17 and accepts Medicaid.
Grant said she has empathy for youth who are trying to seek help for drug addiction, as resources have plummeted over the last few years.
“Youth treatment has just diminished terribly in terms of resources,” she said. “I know our legislature is trying to beef that up this time, but Center for Human Services is about it. Even the inpatient center, Sundown M Ranch [located in Yakima] is the last inpatient treatment center for youth. It’s just dying without a really good reason.”
One commenter asked if facilities were seeing longer stays than before due to drugs being laced with traces of stronger substances.
According to Mishelle Rutherford, the director of health services at Evergreen, the average stay for patients in detox is five days. However, stays are getting longer because so many drugs are now being laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine. Because fentanyl takes so long to leave the body, patients are experiencing withdrawal symptoms for longer periods of time.
“We’re seeing that it’s living in the fat cells,” she said. “So it’s releasing at all different times. So someone may be feeling better one day in detox, and the next, they’re back into full withdrawal. It’s been really hard to manage.”
Another commenter tied into that question, asking if it was proving difficult to convince insurance companies to cover longer stays.
Rutherford said up to this point, Evergreen has not had too many problems with insurance companies.
“As long as we can show that there’s a medical need for them to be there,” she said. “That’s where it gets tricky, because what we might consider a medical need in our field of detox, may not be exactly what the insurance company sees as a medical need. So that does cause problems.”
In fact, Rutherford said, there is more of an issue with patients leaving early.
“We end up having a lot of people leave against medical advice toward day four or five because they’re not feeling better,” she said. “So it’s kind of a complicated piece just in having them complete detox. And of course, just going through detox: That’s just the very start.”
Distelhorst ended the meeting by thanking the community for joining and being open to learn about the complicated processes of drug treatment.
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— by Lauren Reichenbach
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