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Washington State News

Oregon, Washington lead nation in increased fentanyl deaths, study says

Randy Bracht | The Center Square

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(The Center Square) – The states of Oregon and Washington had the highest increase of fentanyl-related fatalities – 13 times the national average – and other drug overdose deaths over the past year, according to a recent study.

The findings were among those summarized last month by the Families Against Fentanyl, a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote public awareness of dangers posed by illicit use of the potent synthetic opioid.

Citing data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s estimated that 111,000 Americans died from drug overdoses nationwide during a 12-month period ending in April. Of those fatalities, more than 77,000 involved fentanyl and synthetic opioids other than methadone.

“Both are record numbers and increases over the prior year,” the FAF said in its summary.

According to the organization, fentanyl poisoning is now the leading cause of death among 18- to 45-year-olds – persons considered to be in the prime of life – exceeding motor vehicle accidents, suicides, COVID-19, heart and liver disease, homicides and other drug-related deaths.

During the most recent 12-month study period, FAF said Oregon had the highest rate of increase in fentanyl deaths among U.S. states: jumping from 610 to 1,020, or more than 67% compared to the prior year and far higher than the national average of 5%. Oregon also ranked second-highest for increases in overdose deaths overall, going from 1,217 to 1,501, an increase of 23%.

Neighboring Washington state saw its overdose deaths increase by over 34%, going from 2,349 to 3,155, the highest one-year increase in the nation. And Washington narrowly trailed Oregon with the nation’s second-highest increase in fentanyl deaths at 65%, increasing from 1,403 to 2,313, according to the FAF analysis.

Although the two Northwest states experienced the biggest percentage spikes in overdose deaths, they were not among the states with the highest number of drug-related fatalities during the 12-month period.

California witnessed both the most fentanyl/synthetic opioid deaths (7,728) and overall overdose deaths (12,542), followed in both categories by Florida (respectively 5,349 and 7,830).

According to the Centers for Disease Control, the states with the lowest predicted deaths in a 12-month period through April were South Dakota (89), Montana (168) and Arkansas (549). The CDC noted that drug overdose deaths may involve multiple drugs and a single death might be included in more than one category.

The FAF briefing did not elaborate on factors which may have contributed to the dramatic increase in drug deaths in Oregon and Washington during the recent 12-month comparative period. The two were among 31 states which saw increases in deaths from fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid drug approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for pain relief and as an anesthetic. It is approximately 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin as an analgesic, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

In recent years, steep increases in fentanyl deaths were first reported in the eastern United States and have since spread westward across the nation, said Dr. Tao Sheng Kwan-Gett, MPH, chief science officer for the Washington State Department of Health.

“The rates of deaths from fentanyl overdose currently observed in Washington reflect its spread to every corner of the U.S.,” Kwan-Gett said in emailed comments Thursday. “To save lives from fentanyl and other opioids, we need to urgently increase access to treatment medications for opioid use disorder, get life-saving naloxone to anyone who uses substances as well as the people around them, and raise awareness of the dangers of opioids.”

Naloxone is a life-saving medication that reverses the overdose effects of opioids including heroin, fentanyl, methadone, OxyContin and Vicodin. Naloxone, also called NARCAN, can be administered as an injection or nasal spray.

In Washington state, naloxone is covered by Medicaid and can be dispensed at pharmacies without a prescription or provided by community-based organizations under a statewide order. People who should carry naloxone include drug users, their friends and families, and those who interact with people who use drugs, including service providers and emergency personnel. More information is available from the Washington Department of Health.

Families against Fentanyl was founded by Jim Rauh, a chemical engineer from Ohio, following the death of his son, Thomas, who unknowingly ingested illicit fentanyl. The organization seeks to have illicitly manufactured fentanyl – which has been smuggled into the U.S. across both its northern and southern borders – declared a “weapon of mass destruction” and an issue of national security.  The group wants foreign governments held accountable, and it promotes harm-reduction programs to support individuals and communities from fentanyl poisonings.

Authorities note that illicit fentanyl is increasingly being cut into other illegal drugs, such as cocaine or amphetamines, and users are often unaware of its presence and potential for lethal overdose. According to CDC data, an estimated 64,268 fatal fentanyl overdoses took place in the U.S. between April 2020 and April 2021, a 50% increase over the prior 12 months.

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