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Cowlitz County overdose fatality rate remains among state's highest

Cowlitz County overdose fatality rate remains among state's highest

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Deaths from prescription drug abuse are dropping statewide, but not in Cowlitz County.

Cowlitz County has the state’s second-highest rate of deaths due to heroin or prescription drug abuse, at 17.1 deaths per 100,000 people between 2010 and 2012, the state Department of Health reported this week. The local rate is more than double the state rate.

The trouble isn’t so much that the local rate is increasing. Cowlitz County has long been a dubious state leader in substance abuse. What’s especially disturbing is that it’s just not declining, and health officials are baffled.

“There’s nothing outstanding in our economy or community that signal this is an area rife for those problems,” Pathways 2020 Director Paul Youmans said. “We’ve worked hard to bring citizens together and try to address those issues, but sometimes it just takes us a while to get caught up.”

Pend Oreille County leads the state with 19.7 heroin and prescription medication deaths per 100,000.

Statewide, the overdose rate from prescription drug abuse fell 27 percent in three years, from 512 deaths in 2008 to 388 in 2012. However, the number of heroin deaths rose from 146 in 2008 to 231 in 2012, the state reported.

Overall, the state rate of deaths from both heroin and prescription drugs fell slightly over the last three years, from 8.7 per 100,000 to 8.5 per 100,000.

State officials attribute some of the decline in prescription medication deaths to addicts’ switch to heroin. Once people are hooked on painkillers, they often turn to heroin, which is cheaper but gives the same effect, said Elizabeth Vaughn, epidemiologist with the Cowlitz County Health Department.

“Over time, your body builds up a tolerance. Your body will build a resistance to it and say, ‘I need more to kill the pain,’ ” Vaughn said. “That’s why it’s so important to monitor people’s usage.”

In Cowlitz County, prescription drug overdose deaths are only slightly greater than heroin overdoses, said Cowlitz County Coroner Tim Davidson.

“They are neck and neck,” he said. “Some of the heroin deaths will have some other contributing factor, either prescription drugs, marijuana or some other street drug.”

Davidson said the trends are cyclical, and as society’s focus turns to controlling one drug, addicts turn to another.

“A few years ago, we had a real high prescription problem with methadone,” Davidson said. Once treatment programs focused on methadone, he said methadone deaths declined, and use of other drugs picked up.

“You arrest one guy on the street corner, and two more take his place,” Davidson said.

Youmans said he hopes law enforcement agencies and counseling efforts such as the Drug Abuse Prevention Center find more ways to treat addiction.

“This is one of the things we’re saddled with. Many agencies are looking at ways to eradicate it and, better yet, prevent it,” he said.

Lyxan Toledanes covers health and medicine and Rainier and Castle Rock city government for The Daily News. Reach her at 360-577-2586 or


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