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Opioid crisis declared in Pierce County, but what exactly does that mean?

Pierce County Council members have sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, hoping that declaring the county a “state of opioid crisis” statement paves the way for aid.
Pierce County Council members have sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee, hoping that declaring the county a “state of opioid crisis” statement paves the way for aid. L.A. Times file, 2013

It’s official: Pierce County is in a “State of Opioid Crisis.”

The declaration, including the capital letters, appears in a letter sent Tuesday to Gov. Jay Inslee and signed by the seven members of the County Council.

“Opioid sales and abuse are causing an increase in overdoses, deaths, and a rise in crime,” the letter states. “... The current state of affairs is unacceptable. To protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizens of Pierce County, action must be taken to combat this epidemic.”

Councilwoman Pam Roach came up with the idea for the letter. County leaders had previously formed an opioid task force and work group to assess the problem, but Roach felt a letter to the state would underline the county’s concerns in a more public way.

“I brought this up a couple of weeks ago at a study session,” she said. “The people in the county need to be alerted to just how bad it is.”

The people in the county need to be alerted to just how bad it is.

Councilwoman Pam Roach

Councilman Rick Talbert, who sometimes finds himself at odds with Roach on other issues, saw virtue in a public statement, as did other members.

“I was happy to sign,” he said. “There’s value in leading on this. This is a major public health crisis in our country right now. I hope it means we’re going to get the necessary places at the table — in getting the state and federal government to help us address solutions.”

So what does it mean to declare a crisis?

“Legally, nothing,” said Councilman Derek Young, who signed the letter and will head the opioid task force when its work begins later this year. “But it does make the public more aware that we do have a problem locally, not just a national problem.”

President Donald Trump issued a statement Tuesday in response to the opioid crisis, but stopped short of declaring a national emergency, as a national commission he established had recommended. However on Thursday, Trump said that opioid use in the United States was indeed a crisis and that he was preparing to declare the problem a national emergency.

Roach said her inspiration for the letter to Inslee came from the state of Arizona. In June, Gov. Doug Ducey declared a statewide public health emergency linked to opioid abuse. The strategy behind such a move theoretically provides increased access to federal and state funding.

“There will be money involved and I want Pierce County at the top of the list,” Roach said. “There may be a county that’s worse than us. I don’t know, but there’s certainly a lot of counties that are better than we are.”

This is a major public health crisis in our country right now. I hope it means we’re going to get the necessary places at the table.

Councilman Rick Talbert

The letter cites deaths tied to opioid overdoes, noting that Pierce County’s rate in 2015 was 10.2 deaths per 100,000 people, compared to the statewide average of 9.8.

For the moment, the declaration has no formal effect, though council members will follow up with a resolution related to the crisis in the coming weeks. The resolution, still in the formative stages, likely will declare a state of emergency.

The opioid task force will begin its work later this year, but its focus is tighter, intended as a response to state requirements linked to Medicaid funding and other public health needs.

The Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department also tracks opioid trends on an annual basis.

“Opioid use, morbidity, and mortality have increased nationally, across Washington state, and within Pierce County,” the department reported in February of this year.

Young added that fighting the crisis requires rejecting misconceptions about it, including the idea that one drug such as heroin is the problem, and that only low-income people are affected.

“There isn’t a demographic,” he said. “That’s sort of the unusual part of this. It’s hit rural communities, suburban communities, urban communities. It hits all income brackets. It’s because it started from the medical prescription side.

“We have to make sure when we’re treating this that we’re not just going after the opioids as the only problem. We need to attack addiction, not just the particular chemical that’s going on right now.”

 
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