Opioid-related overdose deaths appear to be on the decline locally, but use of the drug is likely as prolific as ever, according to officials.

The Snohomish County Health District — along with other regional and state partners — monitors heroin and prescription drug use. The participating agencies have helped pinpoint a trend in the past six years in Snohomish County. 

“The total number of heroin and opioid deaths are decreasing, but that doesn’t mean usage is going down,” said Heather Thomas, district public and government affairs manager. “We are thinking more naloxone (medicine used to reverse the effects of an overdose) is available in the community, so people are more likely able to intervene and save someone’s life.” 

Thomas said the health district tracks those numbers every year. A grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Washington State Department of Heath has allowed the Snohomish Health District and Providence Health and Services in Everett to monitor overdoses more closely. The pilot project started in the medical center’s emergency department back in January.

Thomas said the hope is to eventually renew that grant and expand the reach of the data collection. The funds also helped Providence Health hire a nurse, who will help connect “overdose patients with case management services after discharge,” according to a health district news release.

“This is a cutting-edge pilot project that has involved a lot of collaboration with Providence, DOH and the CDC,” states Nancy Furness, Snohomish Health District prevention services director, in a news release. “We are looking forward to being fully implemented, and hopefully receiving additional grant funding to extend this effort with other partners in the community.

Thomas said the hope is that the two new tools will help the health district and its partners develop more strategies for addressing the opioid epidemic. She said there has been nothing like the pilot program established in the region before. Snohomish County is one of three in the state awarded the grant funds, she said.

“Our ultimate goal is to prevent this, not just respond,” Thomas said.

In the first three months of 2017, there were 245 overdoses reported at Providence. The majority are “not repeat patients and span all age groups,” according to the news release.

“The burden of disease is high in Snohomish County, so this partnership is a good opportunity to reach out to patients in a new way,” said Dr. Ryan Keay, Providence Regional Medical Center Everett’s emergency department medical director, in the news release. “This is just the tip of the iceberg since we’re only tracking and connecting to patients coming into our emergency department here in Everett.”

The health district also addressed information from a DOH study released on May 5, which shows Snohomish County had the second highest mortality rate in Washington last year — 11 of the 70 cases statewide. The numbers illuminate a rise in the use of synthetic opioids, according to the health district.

Fentanyl is a prescription drug similar to morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. It is also far more lethal, Thomas said. 

She said the health district does not have any specific numbers on overdose deaths for communities such as Monroe and the Sky Valley yet. More localized information will likely be released later in the year. Further, the count from 2016 may change as the DOH continues to review and scrub the preliminary data, she said.

To find out how to acquire and use naloxone, go to snohd.org/heroin.