For most of 2023, Lewis County has been on track to break its all-time fatal overdose record.
That didn’t make it easier to accept for Lewis County Coroner’s Office staff on Tuesday.
“When I compared the years and updated our list for this year, it was quite a shock,” Coroner Warren McLeod told The Chronicle.
Thirty-eight people in Lewis County have died from drug overdoses since New Year’s Day. That’s six more than the worst entire year on record, and it’s only September. The previous all-time high was set in 2020 and tied again in 2021, each with 32 overdose deaths.
Case numbers from the last few years are telling, McLeod said. They tell of the increasing prevalence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), is 50 times stronger than heroin. The stats also hint at pandemic-era despair and a crisis of substance use disorders, among other mental illnesses.
The CDC’s page on fentanyl states the “latest provisional drug overdose death counts suggest overdose deaths accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.”
For Lewis County, “accelerated” doesn’t adequately capture the data. From 2019 to 2020, overdose deaths quadrupled.
In 2019, there were seven drug-related deaths, and none had fentanyl in the toxicology reports. Twelve months later, cases soared, yet fentanyl was detected in just two reports. In 2021, there were four fentanyl deaths out of the 32 total.
But last year, fentanyl was detected in more than half the people who died by drug overdose, 16 out of 26 total. Out of 2023’s 38 deaths, it’s similar. Nineteen of their toxicology reports saw fentanyl.
The most deadly drug in Lewis County used to be methamphetamine, McLeod said. When that was the case, the coroner’s office didn’t need to keep drug overdose deaths on their own data sheet.
“It’s sad that we have to now,” he said.
The coroner’s office works closely with the Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team, according to a previous monthly update from McLeod. The team and other agencies report all sorts of drugs, from marijuana to meth, being laced with trace amounts of fentanyl, he said, which makes them more addictive. Another issue comes in the form of counterfeit pills.
Where someone may be told they’re taking oxycodone or another prescription drug, McLeod said, they actually have fentanyl.
“We are also seeing an increase in cases where larger amounts of fentanyl are found in the toxicology,” McLeod said.
Anyone of any age can legally carry and administer naloxone, often labeled under the brand name Narcan, a nasal spray that can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. It’s available over the counter in pharmacies across the nation and can often be obtained at no cost through mail programs.
Visit https://stopoverdose.org to find naloxone in Washington.
Learn more about the medication, substance use disorders and other services available to residents at https://doh.wa.gov/you-and-your-family/drug-user-health.
Before the updated total from Tuesday, the coroner’s office had tallied 580 total death in Lewis County this year, including two with undetermined causes, five homicides, five with pending tests, 15 suicides and 38 accidental deaths.