Fentanyl deaths double in Washington, could be shift in Opiate crisis

SEATTLE — State health officials are alarmed by the increase in deaths related to fentanyl, an opioid drug that can be 50 times more powerful than heroin.

University of Washington researchers teamed up with state and county health officials and determined 70 people died of fentanyl overdoses in 2016.

This story will be on KIRO 7 at 5pm tonight on air and online.

“We don't know if this is a canary in gold mine of something bigger coming,” said Dr. Caleb Banta-Green, senior drug abuse researcher at UW.

The 2016 numbers can’t be directly compared to 2015 when 26 Fentanyl deaths were reported because in mid-2016 the state toxicology lab changed its test protocols to identify new types of fentanyl-type drugs.

“It's difficult to sort out these drug overdose deaths,” State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said.  “Because most involve multiple substances.”

Drug abusers who use heroin and prescription painkillers are drawn to fentanyl because it's 30-50 times more powerful.

It's often sold on the streets in pill form and made to look like a painkiller such as Vicodin or hydrocodone.

“Since they are more dangerous drugs and more powerful we do worry about them causing overdose more frequently,” Lofy said.

Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, from the King County Opiate Task Force, joined the Fentanyl panel Wednesday at UW Medicine.

The task force has been approved to open two safe injection/consumption sites in King County.

The locations and dates haven't been determined, but KIRO 7 asked if fentanyl will be allowed to be used at those sites.

Duchin said yes it will be allowed and said it will be a safer place to use the drug because there will be trained health professionals who can assist if needed.

The researchers say Heroin is still the dominant opiate being sold in Western Washington by the drug cartels.  But they are alarmed by the increased presence of fentanyl.

“Is it something purposely being distributed,” Dr. Banta-Green said.  “We don't have a good street intelligence that I am aware of that really lets us know. Is this an early warning sign or not?”

While the number of fentanyl deaths increased last year in the state, the overall number of opioid deaths stayed the same.

The health experts credited that to the increased distribution of naloxone, which reverses the effect of an overdose.

Recommendations for people who use opioids and their friends and family:

•             If anyone in your life uses any kind of opioid (pharmaceutical or illicit) for any reason (pain and/or opioid use disorder), you should know how to recognize and intervene in an overdose see www.stopoverdose.org to learn more.

•             Don’t ever use drugs alone.

•             If you see an overdose involving opioids, call 911, do mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing, and use naloxone (a prescription drug which when given during an overdose may stop it), which can be found at the following locations and at all Walgreens, Safeway, and Albertsons pharmacies in Washington.

•             The best long-term overdose prevention is treatment for opioid-use disorder with methadone or buprenorphine, which support long-term recovery and reduce overdose fatality rates by 50 percent. Contact the Washington Recovery Help Line (866.789.1511) to learn more about opioid-use disorder and treatment options.