King County overdose deaths surpass 2022 levels; experts worry new laws won’t help

Oct 12, 2023, 3:56 PM


(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

(Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

There are updated numbers on the fentanyl crisis, and they are staggering as, to date in King County, 1,017 people have died from overdoses, as of Thursday afternoon. The vast majority of those involved the opioid fentanyl.

The number of people who have died from overdoses in 2023 has now surpassed the number of people who died in the county in all of 2022 and there are more than 2 1/2 months left of this year.

The King County Medical Examiner’s Office reported the updated numbers Thursday. The office provides frequent updates to its totals.

Previous statistics were shared at a Downtown Seattle Association discussion on the fentanyl crisis in September.

More on fentanyl: Fentanyl pills being sold for as little as 40 cents in Seattle

From January through August, King County Emergency Medical Services responded to 5,645 overdoses. The Seattle Fire Department responded to 4,000. Each of those statistics is on pace to be higher than 2022’s totals.

Looking at the availability of Narcan

During the discussion, the panelists agreed that Narcan — which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose — needs to be more widely available. Narcan is already being routinely used by area first responders and social services providers.

“Overdose reversals that are being done are really amazing acts of life-saving that are happening,” Executive Director of the Downtown Emergency Services Center Daniel Malone said. But Malone also added, “they are stressful as hell.”

KIRO Newsradio Historian Feliks Banel, who moderated the panel, called it an “unquantified, human toll” on the first responders and others who are caring for those who have overdosed. The panel agreed that, though a critical tool, Narcan, is not the solution to the fentanyl crisis.

The experts said people suffering from opioid use disorder need more access to maintenance drugs like methadone and buprenorphine, which can substitute for the much more dangerous street fentanyl. They also need help resolving the underlying reasons for their drug use, such as homelessness or mental illness.

“We can use the medications, but if we don’t work with people to help with homelessness or other situations that they may be in that may actually be the driving force for using the substances, they may still need to use (fentanyl),” Dr. Cyn Kotarski, Medical Director of the group Purpose Dignity Action, said.

More on Narcan availability: Narcan to be installed in Pierce County vending machines for free

What’s not needed: Serving time

What they don’t need, according to Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, is jail time. The long-time University of Washington opioid researcher expressed frustration over Seattle’s new drug ordinance, which is in line with the new state law.

“There are some real consequences to this public drug use (law) that’s not the intent, I get that,” he said.

The law makes possession and public use of illegal drugs a gross misdemeanor that’s punishable by up to 180 days in jail for the first two offenses to 364 days for a third offense.

Banta-Green talked about seeing people using fentanyl as he walks to work in the University District, and that he occasionally checks on them to make sure they’re OK.

Heather Bosch’s ‘Facing Fentanyl’ series: Addiction in pregnancy ‘ruins multiple lives’

“If they know that public drug use can lead to them being arrested, they’re going to go somewhere where they can’t be seen,” Banta-Green said. “And when they can’t be seen, they are more likely to die alone.”

The law does encourage police and prosecutors to divert people into treatment. But Banta-Green said there’s not enough available.

“The issue is we probably still have a 70-80% treatment gap,” and the new law does not include money to increase treatment services.

Editors’ note: This piece was originally published Sept. 21. It has been updated several times since then.

Heather Bosch is an award-winning anchor and reporter on KIRO Newsradio. You can follow her on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email her here.

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King County overdose deaths surpass 2022 levels; experts worry new laws won’t help