Gov. Inslee is updated on the opioid and overdose epidemic in Washington

Monday, January 29, 2024

Narcan can save someone who has overdosed
By Grace Deng

Gov. Jay Inslee, on Wednesday, January 24, 2024 asked state health and social services officials to update him on the opioid and overdose epidemic in Washington.

Here are four takeaways from Inslee’s public performance review.

1. Overdose death rates have skyrocketed in recent years, driven primarily by the fentanyl wave.

There were 2,001 opioid overdose deaths in 2022 and 1,803 of those were fentanyl, according to Washington Department of Health data. 

Fentanyl deaths have surged since 2019 and far outpace other devastating chapters of the opioid epidemic, including waves of fatalities from prescription opioids in the early 2000s and from heroin around 2016.

Both prescription opioid and heroin overdose deaths are on the decline. (Washington State Department of Health)

2. Fentanyl is driving deaths and close calls of children involved in the state’s welfare system.

The Department of Children, Youth and Families has reported 49 “critical incidents” in 2023, 33 of which were driven by fentanyl. The agency defines a “critical incident” as a child fatality or near fatality that occurs within 12 months of involvement with the child welfare system. Among fentanyl-related critical incidents, 88% involved children under 2 years old.

DCYF also found the majority of critical incidents occurred in cases where there was no immediate safety threat at the time of a caseworker’s assessment, but the risk assessments identified the child’s home as having a moderate or high level of risk.

3. Indigenous people die at disproportionately high rates from fentanyl overdoses.

The overdose death rate for American Indian and Alaska Native people in Washington is 97 deaths per 100,000, more than twice the rate for the next most-impacted group, Black individuals, at 45.8 deaths per 100,000. The group least affected by deadly opioid overdoses is Asians, at 3.5 deaths per 100,000.

Tribal leaders are investing in efforts to combat the opioid epidemic but are also asking the state for help and calling on Gov. Jay Inslee to announce a state of emergency.

4. Most state prisoners have a substance use disorder, but few receive medication that can help.

The Department of Corrections estimates that 63% of their prison population has a substance use disorder. That’s 7,984 prisoners of the state’s 12,760 as of 2023. The state also acknowledges that its reported percentages are probably underestimations.

However, only 32% of eligible prisoners are getting medication for opioid use disorder — and very few prisoners with substance use disorders are even eligible. Medication-assisted treatment is considered the “gold standard” for opioid use disorder treatment.

Naloxone was used 103 times in Department of Corrections facilities from January to November 2023 and drug overdoses are a driving factor of unexpected prisoner deaths.

5. In other news: The state has now won opioid settlements totaling more than $1.2 billion.

Attorney General Bob Ferguson announced Wednesday that Johnson & Johnson will pay the state $149.5 million to settle a lawsuit accusing the healthcare industry giant of deceptive marketing practices that helped fuel the opioid epidemic in Washington.

The funds will be evenly split between the state and 125 cities and counties. Those dollars must be spent on treatment and recovery services, and halting the spread of opioids and fentanyl. The remainder will cover the state’s legal costs.

Ferguson said he thinks the Legislature can appropriate the state’s share of the Johnson & Johnson settlement, roughly $61.6 million, during the 2024 legislative session. With the latest settlement, Ferguson’s office said the state has now secured upwards of $1.2 billion from opioid-related litigation.


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