One Washington County Is Treating The Opioid Crisis As A Natural Disaster

By Maggie Ethridge 11/02/18
What if the government used the natural disaster coordinated system to mitigate the opioid epidemic?
Paramedics preparing to unload patient from ambulance

In Snohomish County in Western Washington, officials are taking a unique approach to the opioid crisis by declaring it a life-threatening emergency, as if it were a natural disaster.

As overdose deaths are threatening more lives than hurricanes and mud slides, they say it makes practical sense. Ty Trenary, former police chief in Snohomish County, thought that his rural community was not affected by the drug crisis.

Trenary told NPR that at the time he thought, "This is Stanwood, and heroin is in big cities with homeless populations. It's not in rural America."

A new poll by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health showed the truth: 48% of people said opioid addiction in their communities has worsened over the past five years.

After Chief Trenary toured the local jails, he realized the problem was enormous. He witnessed over half of the jail inmates withdrawing from heroin or other opioid drugs.

"It took becoming the sheriff to see the impacts inside the jail with heroin abuse, to see the impacts in the community across the entire county for me to realize that we had to change a lot about what we were doing," Trenary told NPR.

The idea to go the natural disaster route was the brainchild of Shari Ireton, the director of communications for the sheriff’s office. In 2014, a massive landslide in Washington killed 43 people. As the communications director, Ireton was in charge of organizing the press for field trips to the worst areas of landslide damage.

"It was amazing to see Black Hawk helicopters flying with our helicopter and a fixed wing over the top of that," she told NPR. "All in coordination with each other, all with the same objective, which is life safety."

Ireton had a moment of inspiration: what if the government used the natural disaster coordinated system with everyone working together, across government agencies, to treat the opioid epidemic?

The county loved the idea, and a group was formed called the Multi-Agency Coordination group, or MAC group. The group follows FEMA’s emergency response playbook and is run out of a special emergency operations center.

MAC includes seven overarching goals, which include reducing opioid misuse and reducing damage to the community. The goals are dissembled to smaller, workable steps, such as distributing needle cleanup kits and training schoolteachers to recognize trauma and addiction.

MAC is too new to understand the scope of the group’s impact on the community just yet. Those being helped will surely feel that it is a positive direction for Washington and for addiction treatment.

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Maggie May Ethridge is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances: Scenes From a Marriage (Shebooks, 2014) and the recently completed novel, Agitate My Heart. She is a freelance writer published in Rolling Stone, VOX, Washington Post, The Guardian and many others. Find her at her blog Flux Capacitor or on LinkedIn or Twitter.