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Fentanyl overdoses in Washington see ‘stunning’ increase in 2020

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht shows a picture of a common fentanyl-laced pill that's been found across King County. (Aaron Granillo, KIRO Radio)

Fentanyl has been a driving factor behind deadly overdoses in Washington state for years now, and in 2020, that was never more evident.

The context behind fentanyl overdoses in Washington state

The second quarter of 2020 saw 171 fentanyl-involved overdoses, according to data cited by Caleb Banta-Green, a research scientist with the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute (ADAI) at the University of Washington.

Over that same period in 2019, Washington saw just 63 fentanyl overdoses; two years prior to that, there were 18.

That makes for a trend Banta-Green describes as “stunning.”

“We’re at the tail end of a wave that’s been building across the country, so we’ve gone from a low point to a high point quickly,” he told UW Medicine in a recent Q&A.

Fentanyl is commonly found in counterfeit pills made to look like prescription opiates like oxycodone. The risk comes from the fact that fentanyl is anywhere from 30 to 50 times as strong as pure heroin, and a dose the size of a few grains of salt can be fatal.

As Banta-Green lays out, it first started to spread prominently along the East Coast and Midwest in 2013, before gradually making its way across the United States to the West Coast. As for whether 2020’s marked increase could have been driven by the pandemic, he believes there could very well be a correlation.

“We know that a person is more likely to die of an overdose if they are alone. Everyone had more time alone last year,” he pointed out. “It’s a reasonable theory that the overdoses would leap with a drug in high supply, mixed with the continuing pressures of social determinants of health, and then on top of that the isolation and stress of a pandemic.”

“What’s interesting, though, is that we didn’t see that same sharp increase with heroin and pharmaceutical opioids – just fentanyl. We don’t know why,” he added.

In the months to come, Banta-Green does believe that Washington has a chance to “get a better handle” on the situation, pointing to unique intervention methods being employed across the state.

That’s driven by “low-barrier, rapid access to judgement-free care” championed by ADAI, by educating people on how to recognize fentanyl in counterfeit pills, distributing thousands of overdose-reversing naloxone kits, and promoting addiction treatment with medications like buprenorphine and methadone.

Seattle to fund 700 naloxone kits as part of fentanyl awareness

“A lot of our work at ADAI is trying to understand the problem, understand how clinicians are dealing with it, and train clinicians statewide in a medication-first approach including client centered, shared decision making,” he outlined.

You can read more about the work ADAI is doing in Washington state on their website here.

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