Island County recently launched two programs aimed at opioid abuse.
A new outreach team that seeks out addicts on their own turf began on Camano and South Whidbey this month. At the same time, a countywide needle exchange program was restarted.
The three-person outreach team includes a public health nurse, sheriff’s deputy and opioid outreach advocate that’s overseen by the county’s Human Services Behavioral Health office. It plans to expand into North Whidbey in the future.
Local law enforcement usually know who drug offenders are and where they hang out. The deputy will act as both a intermediary and a security presence while a nurse assesses health needs and an outreach worker gauges barriers to getting treatment, Human Services Director Jackie Henderson said.
“It’s a way of looking at the whole person and assessing what their needs are,” Henderson said.
The pilot program is aimed at opiates, or opioids, such as narcotic painkillers and heroin because the increased use of the drug is killing more people, filling jail cells and overwhelming families and law enforcement officials.
Carolyn Pence was hired by the county to serve as the team’s leader. An experienced drug and alcohol educator, Pence said the team will meet one-on-one with opioid users wherever they feel most comfortable.
“It could be someone’s house, a coffee shop or a community center,” she said.
The team is prepared to give people food packs and hygiene packs if needed. They’ll address issues keeping people from seeking help, such as lack of transportation or health insurance and direct them toward social service programs.
“Everyone’s situation is different,” Pence said. “We could go to five different places and take five different approaches. We won’t give up on people. Maybe they don’t want to get off the drugs that day. We’ll check back with them in a month.”
Getting people into treatment locally isn’t easy because Island County has no in-patient drug rehabilitation facilities.
“We can usually get them into programs in nearby cities but there’s usually a waiting list,” Henderson said.
Getting help from the outreach team is voluntary but that could be an incentive for some.
“They have to be willing to participate and that’s a different approach,” said Deputy Grant Walker, who patrols South Whidbey. “Before it’s been a prosecutor ordering treatment. This is a way to do some of that without the legal pressure behind it.”
The county also reintroduced a needle exchange program, a long-standing public health intervention that lost funding several years ago. Intravenous drug users must turn in one dirty needle to receive a clean needle from a nurse who can make referrals to recovery and other programs.
“Sharing needles is a huge risk factor for contracting hepatitis C,” said public health nurse Colleen Keefe, who is the communicable disease coordinator for Island County. She’s also part of the outreach team.
Federal studies have shown that needle exchange programs don’t increase drug use when conducted with referrals to drug treatment and support services.
The three-person outreach team is funded by a $74,000 grant from the five-county North Sound Behavioral Health Organization and a contribution of $20,000 from Amerigroup Washington, a Washington Apple Health provider.
The concept is based on a national program called the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative. Instead of “arresting our way out of the problem,” the program advocates helping addicts get into recovery and taking the crime out of addiction.
Island County Board of Commissioners approved the new approach last year as a pilot project. Similar outreach programs are underway in Arlington and Everett.
“The opioid epidemic is very diverse,” said Skye Newkirk, behavioral health coordinator.
“It hits middle class families, it hits upper class families,” he said. “It’s not just the so-called ‘street junkies.’ ”
Opiate abuse and deaths have increased nationally and across the state. The epidemic is blamed on doctors penchant to prescribe opioid pain killers, such as oxycodone, the black market for such drugs and the comeback of black-tar heroin, which is potent but relatively inexpensive.
Deaths in Island County attributed to any opiate increased 77 percent from 2004 to 2013, according to a report by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services. Crime lab cases involving opiates increased 239 percent during the same time frame in Island County and 85 percent statewide.
The outreach team hopes to get a better understanding of the extent of Island County’s opioid problem, such as which types of drugs are most accessible and most abused.
“We really need to define the problem,” Henderson said. “Is it mostly IV drug users? Is it mostly heroin? Six months from now maybe we’ll have some answers.”
Henderson admitted to mixed emotions about the potential of the program only because the team may be too much in demand.
“I started to have this dread and this excitement that once the word gets out, we’ll be overwhelmed. Families may start making referrals,” Henderson said. “Will we get everybody into treatment? I don’ t know.”
“But I do know we’re not going to give up on them.”