Fentanyl: The Deadly Synthetic Opioid Ravaging Thurston County

by Natasha Ashenhurst

Fentanyl is causing a surge in overdoses and deaths in Thurston County, Washington. According to David Bayne, the Director of Thurston County Public Health and Social Services and co-chair of the Thurston County Opioid Task Force, Fentanyl is hard to detect and is often mixed with other drugs, including counterfeit prescription pills and heroin.

The street version of the drug is made in unregulated labs, making it even more dangerous. Bayne notes that the Fentanyl found on the streets is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Kurt Hardin, the Director of Thurston County Emergency Services Department, adds that the Fentanyl crisis is straining EMS and hospitals, as bed capacity is becoming increasingly limited. He reports that emergency calls increased to over 40,000 in 2022, and the Fentanyl crisis compounds this already existing problem. At the state level, between 2016 and 2022, Fentanyl deaths have increased ten-fold.

Bayne explains that public health agencies in Thurston County have a dual strategy to prevent and respond to Fentanyl overdoses. “The first strategy is to raise awareness of the increased risk of Fentanyl and dispel any misinformation around it. The second strategy involves increasing the use of Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose,” he said. The spray is a huge benefit for the public, allowing them to administer something immediately that can help someone breathe. The agencies encourage individuals to call 911 first and then administer Narcan, instead of forgetting to call for help.

Hardin adds that EMS is providing first responders and dispatching for drug overdoses. However, one challenge they face is that they don’t know what someone has ingested, as Fentanyl can be laced in a different product, making it difficult to know what someone is consuming. “We encourage individuals to seek treatment programs, and the county has put in place wraparound services to help individuals with their addiction process, as behavioral health issues often come along with any treatment,” he said.

Bayne reports that key workgroups at Thurston County Public Health and Social Services, including Treatment, Prevention, Overdose, Pregnancy, and Parenting, are working on awareness building, community education, and overdose awareness days. The state has also implemented an opioid settlement, which provides funding for prevention and treatment programs. Bayne believes this will be a significant part of Thurston County’s role in addressing the Fentanyl crisis.

Bayne emphasizes that access to Narcan is critical to prevent overdoses and death, and businesses should have policies and procedures in place to make Narcan available. Additionally, he stresses the need to remove the stigma around opioid use to make it safe for individuals to acknowledge their addiction and seek treatment.

Hardin adds that opioid use crosses all socio-economic levels and is not limited to the houseless community, which is a common misconception. He is looking for innovative ways to partner with stakeholders, and this summer, the EMS hopes to roll out a program to provide Narcan leave-behind kits to individuals who won’t seek treatment.

Fentanyl is a serious public health concern that requires our collective attention and action. Public health agencies are working hard to raise awareness, increase the use of Narcan, and provide treatment programs to those who need them. But we can all do our part in preventing overdoses and saving lives.

Both Bayne and Hardin remind us that by making Narcan available and removing the stigma around opioid use, we can help protect our employees, customers, and neighbors. Opioid use affects everyone, regardless of their background or occupation. We must work together to address this crisis.

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