Recent overdose deaths prove this drug is rivaling meth as Tri-Cities’ most deadly

Three people died recently in Kennewick from fentanyl overdoses, and the powerful painkiller is now rivaling methamphetamine as the most deadly drug in the area.

The drug claimed the lives of three people between April 30 and June 7, Benton County Coroner Bill Leach said.

This year, opioids are linked to four deaths, methamphetamine is responsible for another four and one is linked to a combination of other drugs.

County officials are waiting for toxicology results on three others that may be overdoses. If they are drug related, Benton County’s drug overdose statistics are matching last year’s numbers.

The three Benton County fentanyl deaths in the first six months of the year compare to four during the same period last year. The four meth deaths compare to six during the same period last year.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain reliever that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

While it can be obtained through prescriptions, it’s often produced illegally and then added to other opioids, such as heroin.

0616 Opioids 03
A paramedic holds a dose of naloxone, used to reverse the effects of opioids in an overdose situation. Kyle Green

Since it’s so powerful, if it’s not used carefully it can easily lead to overdoses. The U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Eastern Washington District said the drug was responsible for an uptick in drug-related deaths.

Police across Benton County have stepped up efforts to curb the amount of drugs flowing through the area, including partnering with federal law enforcement.

As a rule, Kennewick police investigate overdose-related deaths, said Lt. Aaron Clem, but in the recent cases police weren’t able to find the people who provided the drugs.

The Franklin County coroner will be able to instantly identify illegal narcotics at the scene of suspected overdose deaths with TruNarc, a $25,000 handheld scanner.

While Franklin County hasn’t seen as many drug-related deaths, it is increasing its ability to detect and report them. The county coroner’s office recently received one of the last eight TruNarc devices, which will allow death scene investigators to instantly check pills and powders found near where people have died.

Iceberg of an epidemic

The overdoses are likely only a fraction of the deaths tied to addiction, said Michele Gerber, president of the Benton-Franklin Recovery Coalition.

Officials estimate two people die each month between the two counties, but she suspects it may be higher.

Infections, heart disease and pneumonia are linked to drug use but are not counted as part of the number of drug deaths. A Centers for Disease Control field officer called it an iceberg of an epidemic.

The Benton-Franklin Recovery Coalition is a group of civic leaders from across the Tri-Cities working to increase recovery options and lower barriers for treatment. Their long-range vision is to create a recovery center in the Tri-Cities.

Road to recovery

They’re also looking at ways to improve reporting of overdoses before they lead to death, and increase ways to intervene. They hope to work with local hospitals to track overdoses to get a better sense of how many people are addicted to drugs.

Since starting the effort more than a year ago, Gerber, a parent advocate, has found people are receptive to finding a solution.

“I think the time has come that people are saying addiction really is a disease,” she said recently. “We should be treating these people as sick people and not people who are morally deficient or have a character flaw.”

In Benton County, Coroner Leach has joined a statewide effort to increase reporting of overdose deaths, and he plans to work with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office to create a statewide database of overdose-related deaths.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.