Fentanyl is Second Leading Cause of Overdose Deaths for Third Consecutive Year 

Lewis County Coroner Breaks Down 2022 Death Totals


Fatal at a dosage small enough to fit on the tip of a pencil, fentanyl has been a concern for law enforcement and government officials in recent years due to its deadly impact across Southwest Washington. 

Lewis County is not exempt from that impact, as the drug was the only one to come close to beating meth as the top cause of overdose deaths in 2022. 

Drug overdose deaths in Lewis County were a topic of discussion at a meeting between Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod and the Lewis County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday, 

During the meeting, McLeod presented numbers that will be included in the coroner’s office’s annual report for 2022, which documents the total number of deaths the office handled during the year.

As of Tuesday morning, the coroner’s office had documented a total number of 950 deaths in Lewis County for 2022, but that number will likely increase over the next week or so as death certificates for those who died at the tail end of the year arrive. 

“We anticipate that (final) number is probably not a whole lot more,” McLeod said. 

Of those 950 deaths, 870 were of natural causes, seven had an undetermined cause of death, three were ruled homicides, 16 were ruled suicides, 51 were accidental deaths and three were pending test results to come back before the coroner could rule a cause of death. 

Of the 51 accidental deaths, 26 were deemed drug overdoses. 

Preliminary investigation into the three pending deaths “indicates that they are probably going to come back as positive for drug overdoses,” said McLeod, adding that the coroner’s office anticipates getting the toxicology reports for those pending deaths “shortly.” 

For reference, the county had a total of 944 deaths in 2021, up from 874 in 2020 and 810 in 2019. COVID-19 is attributed as a likely reason for the large jumps in death totals between years. 

Of 2021’s 944 deaths, 849 were of natural causes, two were recorded as homicides, 13 as suicides, 42 accidental, 10 undetermined and 25 were department assists, which is when the coroner’s office assists another law enforcement agency with a task, such as identifying human remains.

As has been true since at least 2020, meth remained the main cause of drug overdoses in Lewis County in 2022, “but fentanyl is coming up fast,” said McLeod. “We’re starting to see some cases where it's just plain fentanyl and we’re seeing a lot of cases, lots and lots of cases, of fentanyl being a co-contributor.” 

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, is commonly mixed with other drugs such as heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine and made to resemble other prescription opioids, according to information released by the CDC. 

The Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team (JNET), which partners with the Lewis County Coroner’s Office on drug overdose deaths, has recently found that drug cartels “are starting to lace all of their drugs with fentanyl, even marijuana,” McLeod said. 

The highly-addictive nature of fentanyl is one reason why drug cartels incorporate it into other drugs in spite of its high-overdose rate, McLeod explained. 

“For every one person who overdoses on fentanyl, there are hundreds if not thousands of other people looking for the drugs,” he said. 

Fentanyl is dangerous enough that coroner personnel and first responders carry the emergency overdose reversal medication Narcan and avoid direct interactions with any drug-like substances they encounter on the job, even for field testing. 

“With all the counterfeit fentanyl out there, we don’t even touch medication bottles,” McLeod said. 

McLeod encouraged county residents to similarly avoid contact with unidentified medications and suspected controlled substances due to the risk of fentanyl exposure. 

The Lewis County Coroner’s Office will continue its partnership with JNET and other law enforcement entities going into 2023, said McLeod. The coroner’s office will also continue working with its other local committee partnerships, including the Vulnerable Adult Task Force, the Traffic Safety Council, the DUI Victim Impact Panel, the Opioid Task Force and the Drowning Prevention Coalition.

“The purpose of our committee partnerships is to try and reduce preventable deaths where we can,” he said. 

What To Know About Fentanyl 

The Centralia Police Department previously provided the following guidance related to fentanyl identification and exposure: 

What you need to know: 

  • Fentanyl can be present in a variety of forms (e.g., powder, tablets, capsules, solutions, and rocks).
  • Inhalation of airborne powder is MOST LIKELY to lead to harmful effects.
  • Incidental skin contact may occur during daily activities but is not expected to lead to harmful effects if the contaminated skin is promptly washed off with water.
  • Naloxone is an effective medication that rapidly reverses the effects of fentanyl.

Overdose symptoms: 

  • Small, constricted “pinpoint pupils”
  • Falling asleep or losing consciousness
  • Slow, weak or no breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds and imp body
  • Cold and/or clammy skin
  • Discolored skin (especially in lips and nails)

What you should do: 

  • If you believe you have been exposed to a substance that could be fentanyl:
  • Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Wash your hands with soap and water to remove any substance from your hands.
  • If you begin to experience any adverse medical symptoms, seek medical attention.