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Drug, Alcohol Deaths Continue To Rise In King County

Patrick Semansky
Leah Hill, with the Baltimore City Health Department, demonstrates how to administer Narcan nasal spray in the event of a possible opioid overdose. In King County, kits equipped with naloxone have reversed nearly 2,300 overdoses.

Deaths from drug and alcohol use are growing in King County. New numbers from Public Health Seattle & King County show that 379 people died in 2017, up from 348 the year before. That’s a nearly 10 percent increase from last year.

Among the factors driving the increase is the use of heroin and other opioids.

“I hear all the time, ‘People don’t want treatment.’ And that’s not correct,” said Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist at theUW Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute. “Because we ask them. And if you ask methamphetamine and heroin users, the vast majority say they do want to stop using.”

To that end, 40 new sites across the county now offer access to buprenorphine, a drug that treats opiate addiction. There’s a new detox facility in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood. And emergency kits with the drug naloxone have reversed nearly 2,300 overdoses.

But experts say getting ahead of the opioid addiction crisis goes beyond treatment, and requires addressing larger issues that can contribute to addiction, like poverty, and homelessness.

Public Health Seattle & King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin says until those “upstream” causes can be addressed, it will be hard to get ahead of the curve.

And while the data released this week is helpful, Duchin cautions that it does not tell the whole story.

“For every overdose we hear about there are literally thousands and thousands of people who have substance use disorder, and who need treatment that we really can’t measure precisely,” he said. “So this is an indicator that we track and monitor, but it shouldn’t be in any way confused with the absolute magnitude of the problem.”

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.