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A Painful Predicament: Managing Opioid Addiction

By Sandra Rees-Bowen

As opioid overdoses are on the rise in Bellingham and across the Pacific Northwest, solutions have been proposed to combat deaths. 

State legislators are pushing for more approaches to treat opioid addiction, including providing a place for users to reduce health risks in the form of safe-injection sites.

Whatcom County does not currently have safe-injection sites, but the Whatcom County Health Department does have a pilot program that can aid opioid users. Their program, Syringe Services, offers the confidential exchange of used hypodermic needles for new, sterile syringes and clean injection equipment.

As a new program, Syringe Services is currently only open on Thursdays from 2:30-5:15 p.m.

Opioids in Whatcom County -

While the rate of opioid-related deaths in Whatcom County is slightly lower than the statewide average, according to Whatcom County Health Department’s 2016 Opioid Overdose Report, it’s still rising.

The report found that, after showing survey participants from Whatcom County data on opiate use, 66 percent of respondents said they thought prescription opiate abuse was a moderate to serious problem.

“Not only have opioid overdoses increased dramatically in recent years, we are seeing a massive increase of overdoses in Whatcom County,” said Charles Watras, manager of the medication-assisted treatment program at Sea Mar, a local community health center.

Watras said need for their services has been increasing as deaths from opioid overdoses are on the rise. He said thousands of people died last year in the United States due to opioids.

According to Jessica McAllister, Syringe Services program coordinator, currently about 80 people per week use this program, however, these numbers fluctuate depending on the time of year.

“Clients hear about our program mostly through word of mouth from their friends,” McAllister said. “But it is becoming more common for us to receive referrals from community medical providers as they become more aware of and accepting of our program.”

According to McAllister, the individuals who work or volunteer at Syringe Services, as well as the staff at Sea Mar’s medication-assisted treatment program, have the same goal: to help those struggling with opioid addiction beat their addictions and begin to lead happy and healthy lives.

Opioids in King County -

King County is fighting a similar battle.

According to a report by the King County Heroin and Prescription Opiate Addiction Task Force, 229 individuals died from heroin and prescription opioid overdose in King County in 2015.

While King County currently does not have safe-injection sites, there are vocal supporters of them.

Councilmember Jeanne Kohl-Welles of King County was one of the members who voted for the task force’s creation. She has also been an open proponent of safe-injection sites, saying that she has been particularly motivated by the recent death of her nephew from an opioid overdose.

In an effort to learn more about other cities that have made safe-injection sites a reality, Kohl-Welles said she visited Vancouver, British Columbia, in Nov. 2017.

Kohl-Welles accompanied several other councilmembers as they visited two safe injection sites, a treatment facility and a day center which provides care to people experiencing homelessness and struggling with substance abuse.

Programs like these aren’t new to the Vancouver area. One supervised injection site, Insite, has been open for 15 years.

Kohl-Welles said she spoke with Guy Fellicella, a former user who credits Insite for saving his life and posted about him on her blog.

“He lived on the streets, using drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside for over 20 years. Without Insite’s supervised consumption services, Guy believes he would have died. He credits Insite for saving his life six times over a 10-year period by its staff bringing him back from near-fatal overdoses and by engaging him to eventually seek treatment,” Kohl-Welles’ blog post said.

James Apa, King County Public Health Department public information officer, said while safe-injection sites are not available at the moment, the King County Health Department has been working on making other resources more accessible.

“Recently we’ve been working to establish a new detox and treatment facility in King County,” Apa said.

This facility would be in addition to those currently open at Harborview Medical Center and at Schick Shadel Hospital in Seattle.

Apa said that while King County has yet to open a safe-injection site, that he and his team are striving to provide the community with crisis kits containing the opiate-overdose antidote naloxone to help save lives in the meantime.

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