OLYMPIA – Today, the Thurston County Board of Health held a special meeting to officially declare two public health crises in our community, the opioid epidemic and homelessness.
“As the Board of Health, we are responsible for the lives of every single person in Thurston County, and we take threats to their health seriously,” said Commission Chair, Bud Blake. “Homelessness and the opioid crisis are top priorities for our citizens and, through these resolutions, we have an opportunity to take strong actions. People in our community are suffering and the best way to end these crises is by working together with all of our governmental, health, and social service partners.”
The Board of Health affirmed their support for Thurston Thrives, the local Continuum of Care, the City of Olympia, and other municipalities’ efforts to take actions to address the homelessness issue; the number one concern of Thurston County citizens according to a recent survey conducted as part of Thurston County’s strategic planning process.
Last year, the County distributed 5.8 million dollars to 35 nonprofit agencies in the community to help address homeless and affordable housing issues. The newly named Office of Housing and Homeless Prevention distributed the dollars and will now lead the County’s response efforts and work with other departments and agencies to mitigate public health hazards associated with this crisis.
The number of people known to be experiencing homelessness in Thurston County on any given day has risen significantly in the past year. On January 26, 2018, 835 persons were counted in the annual Point in Time Census, which provides a snapshot of homelessness in our community. Thirty-eight percent of those counted were families with children.
Almost 40% of people experiencing homelessness are also unsheltered, which puts them at risk for serious long-term health problems, including severe illness and even death. Chronic health conditions and physical disabilities were the most commonly reported experiences of those without housing surveyed. The resolution notes that nearly one third of those counted were people of color, indicating the presence of racial disparities that need to be further addressed along with other underlying causes of homelessness such as the high cost of housing and domestic violence. The resolution also states the need for supportive housing options for people with substance use disorders and mental illness.
The Board also directed Schelli Slaughter, Administrator to the Board of Health and Director of Public Health and Social Services, to prioritize this issue and seek approval to hire a homeless response coordinator who will serve the entire county. This position will work in partnership with the City of Olympia’s homeless response coordinator to implement actions recommended in the forthcoming Thurston County Homeless Housing Plan.
The County is also convening the Hazardous Weather Task Force. The taskforce has declared November 1-April 30 the cold weather season, and is implementing a county-wide Hazardous Weather “Code Blue” Plan to increase shelter capacity to prevent illness and death related to hazardous weather conditions for vulnerable unsheltered populations.
Washington State and Thurston County are currently experiencing an opioid epidemic leading to preventable deaths that involve both prescription opioids and heroin. Thurston County ranks 15th of 39 counties in Washington State opioid-related hospitalizations, and 29th of 39 counties for opioid-related deaths in Washington State.
Misuse of prescription opioids, including dependency, overdose, and opioid-related deaths, have contributed to the epidemic across the United States, Washington State, and Thurston County. This epidemic has lasting and serious health impacts on individuals, their families, and the community. The Board of Health identified this as a health crisis, as well as a top priority and county-wide concern.
The Board directed Schelli Slaughter, Public Health and Social Services Director, to convene a Thurston County Opioid Response Task Force to develop and implement a community-driven response plan to address the opioid epidemic. This task force will report the progress of this plan on a biannual basis to the Board of Health. The Board asked that the plan include the following goals:
- Prevent opioid misuse, abuse, and dependency by improving prescribing practices.
- Treat opioid abuse and dependency through expanded access to treatment.
- Prevent deaths from overdose by working to educate and expand the distribution of Naloxone to individuals who use heroin, and educate individuals and family members about the signs of an overdose.
- Use existing data and enhance data collection efforts to detect opioid and other illicit drug misuse/abuse and scientific evidence to inform the selection of strategies.
- Identify and implement innovative strategies that reduce the risk of individuals and diverse communities disproportionally impacted by the opioid epidemic and that reduce stigma.