Pierce County declares opioid abuse a public health crisis

TACOMA, Wash. – Washington state’s opioid and drug addiction situation appears to be growing.

A University of Washington study released Thursday said drug overdose deaths in King County were the highest ever in 2016, claiming 332 people.

On Tuesday, Pierce County government leaders told Gov. Jay Inslee their community is in crisis by declaring a public health epidemic.

Data from the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department said most of the new addiction and overdose cases are happening with people under 40.

And the sheer number of people seeking treatment for opioids tripled in about a dozen years.

“We admit it, we’ve got a serious problem here,” Pierce County Councilwoman Pam Roach said.

The decision was unanimous when the council declared the county in a crisis.

“It’s affecting our behavioral health centers because we don’t have enough room, it’s affecting our criminal justice system because we have added expenses to do the courts and have law enforcement,” said Roach.

The council sent a letter to Inslee saying prescription drug sales and abuse are increasing overdoses, deaths and crimes.

The county is struggling to handle it and Roach said the crisis hurts the community in other intangible ways as well.

“The loss of human utility,” she said. “When you’re into drugs, you’re not doing anything else. You’re not able to keep a job, take care of yourself.”

The numbers are striking, showing tens of thousands died in recent years from opioid and drug-related overdoses across the U.S. Close to 500 died in less than a five-year span in Snohomish County, more than 700 died in Pierce County in less than a decade’s time, and new numbers from King County set a new record, showing 332 fatalities in 2016 alone.

“You know somebody that’s been affected by this,” said Roach.

Caseworkers at the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department don’t just see the numbers, they see the faces.

“There are 1,600 people out there that have a need for treatment that we haven’t been able to serve,” said Christina Abby, treatment services program manager at TPCHD. “As a result, a facility opened in Lakewood.”

While the department serves hundreds of people struggling with mental health and addiction issues, many more suffer without seeking treatment.

“While we have some slots available, the needs exist,” said Abby.

A task force is already studying data, looking for ways to bring some of the fatality numbers down and look for ways to expand treatment in Pierce County.