New investments to fight fentanyl crisis in King County

Deadly overdoses from fentanyl in King County have tripled since 2019. According to Public Health – Seattle & King County, there were 1,080 fentanyl-involved deaths in 2023, up from 714 in 2022, 385 in 2021, and 168 in 2020.

On Monday, King County Executive Dow Constantine announced new investments and actions to address the surge and help save lives.

"Fentanyl is an extraordinarily dangerous substance. It’s cheap, it’s easy to manufacture, it’s easy to smuggle, and its prevalence in our community has grown and grown over the past five years," said Constantine.

The King County Medical Examiner’s daily deaths report for March 4 identified eight people who died recently from fentanyl. So far this year, 122 people have died from fentanyl overdose in King County.

"It has dramatically increased the lethality four to five times that of heroin," said Brad Finegood, a strategic advisor for Public Health – Seattle & King County.

It’s a crisis that is rapidly changing as the drug becomes more widespread and more lethal. Finegood said he lost his brother to a drug overdose. Now he devotes his work to researching fentanyl and its poisonous impacts.

"Substance use disorder is not a moral failing, but is a complex medical condition that requires a response at all levels," said Finegood.

The executive was joined by other county leaders announcing five priorities to combat the drug crisis, by expanding access to medications and recovery services. The priority actions are: 

  • Treatment and community-based, recovery-focused care
  • Overdose reversal medication (Naloxone) and fentanyl testing
  • Reduced disproportionality in overdoses
  • Robust, diverse behavioral health workforce
  • Behavioral health beds and facilities

"And with a new investment from King County in a few months, we will open the doors on a new residential treatment facility. They’ll treat individuals with both substance-use disorder and underlying mental health conditions," said Constantine.

A new facility could not come at a more critical time. The Washington State Hospital Association (WSHA) said emergency rooms are over capacity. WSHA president Cassie Sauer said the contributing factor to the capacity challenges is that "emergency rooms have become a primary destination for people whose situations are not medical emergencies but instead have conditions related to substance abuse or mental illness complicated by homelessness — and there is nowhere else for them to go for help."

Sauer said the challenges are straining emergency rooms and staff, and increasing patient wait times.

"What was once manageable in our emergency rooms has become a crisis," said Sauer. "Much like we did in COVID-19, we need an emergency response now."

"Solving this crisis will not be done by a single program or tactic," said Constantine.

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With the county introducing its new regional response priorities, Constantine said he believes it will get more resources and more people involved in saving lives, and investing in the people who are already in the fight against fentanyl.

"That means appropriately raising wages for the dedicated professionals already doing this work, and it means expanding our behavioral health apprenticeship programs; making it easier, making it more affordable to become a provider treating substance use and growing that pipeline of trained providers," said Constantine.

The county executive explained King County is also investing $2 million in settlement funds from the lawsuit against opioid pharmaceutical manufacturers. He said that money will support community-based solutions for those disproportionately impacted by fentanyl.