Lewis County saw 28 drug overdose deaths in 2020 — a significant increase over last year’s five overdose deaths and 2018’s four overdose deaths.
Of this year’s 28, four are confirmed fentanyl overdoses, according to Coroner Warren McLeod, and three of those individuals thought they were taking prescription painkillers — not fentanyl — bought on the street.
Earlier this year, McLeod reported to local officials that the county saw its first fentanyl overdose since the rise of the deadly drug nationwide. That death, McLeod said Tuesday, was not necessarily worth countywide panic.
“But we’ve seen it now in four cases,” he said. “And in my opinion, four cases is enough to tell the public to be aware.”
The Coroner’s Office, Sheriff’s Office, and the Centralia Police Department are considering launching a public service announcement warning residents that fentanyl is in the community, and may be present in pills thought to be other, less dangerous painkillers.
McLeod noted that he is also working closely with JNET and law enforcement on the issue, “and they’re reporting to me that almost every arrest they’re making for drug possession … fentanyl is right there with it, and they’re seeing it in large quantities.”
Currently, local officials don’t know if someone within the county is producing the fentanyl-laced pills and passing them off as painkillers, or if fentanyl is being brought into the area unknowingly. Because of this, the coroner’s office has ruled multiple overdose deaths as “undetermined,” instead of “accidental” or “homicide,” as it’s unclear if fentanyl was purposefully given to those individuals who died.
Although McLeod said he hopes the four deaths will be the end of fentanyl overdoses in the county, he also noted that state- and nationwide trends suggest otherwise.
Officials are still hoping that carfentanil — a synthetic several times stronger than fentanyl— does not show up in the county.
“Sometimes they call (carfentanil) a two-stepper. They take two steps and they’re dead,” McLeod said.
Despite the spike in overdose deaths, McLeod said the county hasn’t seen a spike in overall deaths this year. He reported 810 year-to-date deaths investigated by his office, including three homicides and 19 suicides.
Over the summer, a cluster of suicides over a short period of time raised alarm that the pandemic and pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings would lead to an increase, with many local officials citing mental health as an alarming consequence of shutdowns. While McLeod noted that the county is fielding multiple 911 calls a day from residents experiencing suicidal thoughts, there has not been an increase in suicide deaths overall. This year’s count is just under 2019’s count of 20 suicide deaths.