Deaths caused by methamphetamine overdoses and suicide have spiked in Lewis County and Lewis County Coroner Warren McLeod is still trying to figure out precisely why.
“We’ve seen a scary trend in statistics,” he said
McLeod reported that from March 1 to June 22 there were 11 deaths caused by methamphetamine overdoses, when in the same time frame in 2018 and 2019, there was just one for each year.
McLeod added that there is one more death he expects to rule as a methamphetamine overdose, which would bring the count to 12, but is still pending a toxicology report.
McLeod also reported that in the same time period — March 1 through June 22 — there have been 10 suicides, which also is expected to be bumped up one pending a toxicology report. For reference, in the same time period in 2018 there were five suicides, and in 2019, there were three.
The methamphetamine overdoses have been spread out all over the county with Centralia, Napavine, Mineral, Morton, Mossyrock, Randle and Pe Ell accounting for one case each and Chehalis and Onalaska having two each.
McLeod, and others, have suspicions as to why there would be increases in suicides and overdose deaths.
“The only difference I can see between this time period this year and the time period from the last two years is the COVID issue, but I can’t categorically say it’s all related to COVID,” McLeod said.
Local health officials have at least two theories as to why these trends exist.
One theory is that the current environment during the COVID-19 pandemic, including the economic fallout caused by the virus, has exacerbated people’s symptoms of depression, thus causing more deaths via suicide and overdoses, sometimes referred to as “deaths from despair,” according to Lewis County Medical Program Director Dr. Peter McCahill.
“That is a trend that has been observed — not to a great extent — but there has been a little bit of an uptick (in suicides and drug-related deaths) and I believe that is something that has been seen in other counties in Western Washington,” Dr. Peter McCahill, Lewis County’s Medical Program Director, said.
Indeed, there are at least two other counties in Washington who have seen suicide rates climb during COVID-19 and at least one that has seen deaths caused by fentanyl overdoes increase, but the question is whether anyone can say the pandemic spurred on the increase.
Thurston County is on pace to modestly exceed its total suicides (50) from 2019 in 2020, having already reported 28 suicides on the year, according to a report in the Nisqually Valley News, but they also have anecdotal evidence from two residents who left suicide notes saying they had contracted the virus.
Out in Benton County there was a spike in suicides starting in mid-March when eight people died via suicide between March 12 and April 23, according to the Tri-City Herald, to bring their total to 14.
The Seattle/King County Public Health Department told KOMO News they have seen a substantial influx of deaths caused by fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, in 2020, but didn’t connect the increase to the pandemic, only saying that addiction thrives in isolation.
In early May, the national public health group Well Being Trust, which was launched by Providence St. Joseph Health in 2016, warned that COVID-19 could cause an additional 75,000 deaths from suicide and/or alcohol and drug misuse, based on an analysis they did with the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care.
The analysis also notes that during the recession in 2008, suicide rates climbed in concert with unemployment rates and similar trends existed during the Great Depression in the early 1930s.
While Lewis County has experienced an increase of deaths via meth overdoses and suicides in recent months, McCahill isn’t sure that the suicides and overdose deaths can be attributed to “deaths from despair.”
“I think that could be a component of this, but I would be hesitant to say that is the only thing,” McCahill said.
Furthermore, Department of Health spokesperson Linda Waring said in an email that at the state level, the DOH’s public reporting for confirmed suicides and overdose deaths are only confirmed cases, which can take months and even years to finalize — the DOH’s most recent finalized data is from 2018 — and therefore any comparisons of data that hasn’t been finalized would be “very flawed and misleading.”
Another theory, which focuses on the overdose deaths, is that meth with a higher potency could potentially be circulating around the county.
Lewis County Public Health and Social Services Director J.P. Anderson said, historically speaking, when dealing with an increase in drug-related deaths, one should question the potency of the drug that is being passed around locally.
A supervisor for the Lewis County Joint Narcotics Enforcement Team (JNET), who asked to remain nameless for the sake of maintaining his sources, said he and his colleagues have not seen evidence of meth that is of a higher potency, but he has seen another scary trend.
JNET has seen methamphetamine being mixed with various illicit drugs, primarily heroin or oxycodone, and these drugs have been found increasingly with fentanyl cut in them. According to JNET, mixing the two substances is commonly referred to as a “monster” on the street.
“Instead of just the standard single-bowl meth pipe — just the glass pipe with the bowl at the end — we’re seeing them with double bowls, one side has heroin or fentanyl residue and the other one has meth,” the JNET supervisor said.
The use of “monster” has also caused police officers to have some bizarre encounters with people dealing with drug-use disorders.
“I know the patrol guys are seeing a lot of that, where they are even frothing at the mouth and usually the frothing at the mouth is indicative of the fentanyl,” he said.
Despite this recent trend, McLeod reported that only two of the 11 confirmed methamphetamine overdoses also came back with heroin in the toxicology report and none came back with fentanyl.
Perhaps the use of “monster” has not caused a majority of the drug-related deaths, but McLeod is fearful that what JNET has observed in the street will result in more overdoses, and in turn, more people dying.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is also available at 1-800-273-8255.