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Seattle Struggles With Treatment In Response To Drug Overdose Crisis

As fatal drug and alcohol overdoses continue to outpace last year's 1,001 record-setting deaths, Seattle officials spent the summer beefing up the city's emergency response to drug use and overdoses in public places, the Seattle Times reports. They've invested in mobile methadone clinics and are considering a facility for people to recover from overdoses. One council member has offered subsidizing private treatment for those who can't afford it. However, as the city improves its initial response to the drug crisis, a lack of places where people can receive treatment and recover is growing more apparent. "Finding a place to take a person to get the needed care can be a challenge," Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said. In July, the Fire Department launched Health 99, a team that responds specifically to overdose calls, providing lifesaving care and connecting patients with more treatment and harm reduction resources. Two months in, the pilot program has responded to 68 overdoses and done over 20 client follow-up visits. In many cases, these patients are overdosing multiple times due to refusal of treatment services or a lack of available treatment options.

Despite the apparent initial impact of the response unit, Health 99 operates only one vehicle with an emphasis on three areas. It has limited business hours, due in large part to a lack of places to take patients. The department is responding to about 15 overdose calls daily, already surpassing 4,000 calls for the year compared with roughly 3,700 total calls in 2022. Jon Ehrenfeld, manager of the Seattle Fire Department's integrated health programs, including Health 99, said the biggest hurdle in addressing the drug crisis is a lack of clinics, particularly those that will take clients who are unable to pay, as well as shelters and post-overdose treatment facilities. "It's a huge gap in our system," he said, noting that people who are medically stable need a place to seek care and resources after overdosing. Because fentanyl metabolizes more quickly than other drugs, there is a narrow window of time before that patient experiences symptoms of withdrawal, piling on to the need for quickly accessible facilities. In late August, Mayor Bruce Harrell and Congressman Adam Smith toured multiple treatment facilities to "better understand how all these pieces are working together because, quite honestly, they are failing. The system is failing," Harrell said.


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