Amid a dramatic increase in Lewis County drug overdoses, the recent death of a 27-year-old Chehalis man marks the first fentanyl overdose of the year. According to Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod, it’s also the first local overdose caused solely by fentanyl since the rise of the drug several years ago.
In years prior, overdoses involving fentanyl in Lewis County have been poly-substance incidents, involving a mixture of other drugs.
“I’m hoping it’s not a trend,” McLeod said. “Other counties have seen the numbers get up there, but I’m hoping this is an anomaly.”
Lewis County has seen a surge in overdoses this year. In a Sept. 8 meeting, McLeod told Commissioners that there have been 18 drug-related deaths this year. Later that day, the number had increased to 19. Compare that to 2019, when there were just four overdoses, and 2018, when there were three.
A cluster of those deaths correlated with the beginning of the pandemic, with ten deaths occurring between early March and the end of May. This aligns with national trends of increased opioid overdoses during the pandemic.
But even before the onset of the pandemic, Washington state struggled with an influx of fentanyl. Because the drug is so potent, large amounts can be smuggled in smaller volumes. This summer, Lewis County’s Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team (JNET) made a major drug bust, which included 26,000 fentanyl pills worth a total of $535,000.
The issue these days, McLeod said, is that fentanyl is being mixed in with other drugs, often unbeknownst to its users.
“People are buying what they think is methamphetamine or heroin, and there could be fentanyl in there,” McLeod said, noting that synthetic versions can be exponentially stronger.
Other times, fentanyl is purposefully mixed with other drugs. “Monster Meth,” for example, is popular on the East Coast, and consists of meth and fentanyl. JNET is currently working to determine if the mixture is present in Lewis County.
“But there’s no way of knowing what percentage is meth and what percentage is fentanyl,” McLeod said. “And fentanyl has a higher lethality rate than meth.”
The Coroner’s Office notified Lewis County Public Health and Social Services about the uptick of overdoses, but didn’t make any recommendations regarding the pandemic. McLeod is hopeful that overdoses will begin to trend down. In the early months of the pandemic, stay-at-home orders disrupted services for people dealing with addiction, including mental health visits and recovery meetings. He expects the re-opening of Lewis County, which is now in phase 3, will help curb the rise of drug-related deaths.