Preliminary data from the King County Medical Examiner’s Office in Washington state shows that 2022 set a “heartbreaking” record for fentanyl deaths — so much so that the county morgue is running out of space to store bodies.
“Much of it is driven by fentanyl, unfortunately. People do not realize they are taking fentanyl because it can be made to look like cocaine or prescription pills,” Dr. Faisal Kahn, the director for Public Health Seattle and King County,told the King County Board of Health.
According to county Health Department data, there were 1,017 total overdose deaths in King County in 2022, a 43% increase from 2021, which saw 709 deaths.
For comparison, the King County Health Department registered just 318 overdose deaths in 2013.
King County Public Health officials told KOMO News in a statement that they are even running out of storage capacity in the morgue and are looking to expand operations in the near future.
“We have options for temporary morgue surge capacity when our census count gets high, including storing decedents on autopsy gurneys and partnerships with funeral homes. We’re exploring longer-term options for adding more capacity,” officials said.
They added that although fentanyl deaths were a major factor behind the rise in deaths, the county has also undergone a population boom that could also be a contributing factor.
“While the increase in fatal overdoses is a driving factor in our morgue capacity issue, it’s not the only source. Even prior to the recent rise in fatal overdoses we were facing capacity issues due to the increased volume of deaths in conjunction with King County’s rapid population growth,” officials explained.
According to the county’s public overdose data dashboard on its website, an average of 57 people died in King County from fentanyl overdoses each month in 2022.
Kahn added that fentanyl was likely responsible for the spike in deaths among the county’s homeless population, stating “December 2022 will be the highest monthly number ever recorded for homeless deaths.”
King County Executive Dow Constantine said the county is offering drug treatment resources and rehabilitation options to address the homeless crisis.
“The underlying, root causes that have resulted in the current overdose crisis are unfortunately not ones that will be reversed overnight. But what we’ve seen time and time again is that with the right supports and care, people can and do get better, they can heal and move forward. That’s why Executive Constantine proposed, and the Council adopted, an increase in funding to expand access points for low-barrier treatment so that people can be connected to effective medications. These medications, such as buprenorphine can reduce the risk of death by over 50%,” Constantine’s office said.
Constantine said the county is also working with community organizations to address the rise in overdoses among the homeless.
“The county is also increasing funding to work with community-based organizations to expand the distribution of naloxone in vulnerable populations, including people who are unhoused, and increase access to educational materials to reduce the risks of overdoses,” Constantine said in a statement. “In addition, if passed by the voters, the Executive’s proposed Behavioral Health Crises Centers Levy, which earlier this week passed out of the Council’s Regional Policy Committee unanimously, will provide a safe place in community specifically designed, equipped, and staffed for behavioral health urgent care.”