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King County declares fentanyl a public health crisis

caption: An illustration of illegal fentanyl pills manufactured to look like legitimate oxycodone.
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An illustration of illegal fentanyl pills manufactured to look like legitimate oxycodone.
KUOW Illustration/Isolde Raftery

King County’s record-breaking number of fentanyl overdoses has prompted the county council to declare a public health crisis. This year 268 people have died so far — a 46 percent increase compared to this time last year, according to the King County Medical Examiner's Office Overdose Dashboard.

Council members say the goal is to sound the alarm and find solutions.

“It is an issue, that sadly, the trajectory is still very much going up,” said Council member Reagan Dunn, who sponsored the legislation.

Most of the recent fentanyl overdoses and deaths have been linked to illegally manufactured opioids. It’s a synthetic drug that’s fast-acting, addictive, and highly potent.

"I've been working on this a long, long time. And this is unprecedented,” said Caleb Banta-Green, principal research scientist with the University of Washington’s Addictions, Drug, and Alcohol Institute. He said the county has several promising programs that work and can be scaled up.

“Those are programs that combine harm reduction, that is providing services and supplies,” explained Banta-Green, “where people are incredibly engaging, where people are treated kindly and well and not judged for their substance use, and given services to keep them alive today.”

Banta-Green added that the harm-reduction programs need to be expanded to meet the growing need. He said those programs also need to be combined and co-located with services that provide addiction treatment, mental health care and medical care, and made more accessible in a "low-barrier" way.

According to Banta-Green, about 80% of people who would benefit from those interventions are not able to access them. But he also pointed out that not everyone who comes in for harm reduction may want treatment right then. He wants to ensure that the services are available when they're ready.

"I think we can all agree that we want to keep people alive," he said. "And that for people currently using drugs we need to do everything we can to engage them and give them a safe place to be and people to connect to."

It’s now up to the County Executive Office and Public Health to develop response strategies.

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