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Wash. county votes to approach fentanyl crisis like a natural disaster response

Declaring the fentanyl crisis a countywide emergency would allow Whatcom County leaders to bypass certain limits on hiring and spending


By Robert Mittendorf
The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Amid a rising death toll from overdoses and the widespread social consequences of drug addiction, Whatcom County is poised to begin addressing the crisis like a pandemic, an earthquake or other natural disaster.

In a unanimous vote Tuesday, the Whatcom County Health Board approved a resolution recognizing the fentanyl crisis as an emergency and forwarded the measure to the County Council for action. Councilman Tyler Byrd was absent.

“When you’re seeing children die weekly, we need to do something different,” Nick Lewis of Lummi Nation’s governing council told the Health Board during the discussion on Tuesday.

Declaring the fentanyl crisis a countywide emergency would allow County Executive Satpal Sidhu’s administration to bypass certain limits on hiring and spending, just as it did during the COVID-19 pandemic and after the 2021 Nooksack River flood.

Sidhu is prepared for the County Council’s likely approval, spokesman Jed Holmes told The Bellingham Herald.

“The Executive’s Office is ready to put forward an action plan through an executive order that will be responsive to the council’s wishes,” Holmes said in a phone call.

Tuesday’s vote came during a joint meeting with the Public Health Advisory Board, which is composed of appointed community members, some with experience in the medical professions.

Final action on the measure was scheduled for the County Council’s next meeting on April 9. Its passage is a legislative formality because the County Council is also the Health Board.

“We have to have better outcomes than we do now, because people are dying,” Councilman Ben Elenbaas said during Tuesday’s meeting.

Elenbaas and Council Chairman Barry Buchanan have been working for several weeks to draft the resolution that will be considered April 9. Council members have already approved resolutions asking President Joe Biden and Gov. Jay Inslee to make emergency fentanyl declarations.

As it met Tuesday in its dual role as the Health Board, the County Council discussed several possible steps to reduce overdose deaths, including bolstering the Community Paramedic program, finding a temporary home for the planned 23-hour crisis intervention center, and increasing communication among Whatcom County governments, elected officials and public agencies — from Lummi Nation to the Department of Health and Commmunity Services.

A total of 136 people died from overdoses of all kinds in Whatcom County last year, up from 91 deaths in 2022.

That 43% increase was fueled by a cheap and easily available opioid drugs such as fentanyl, coupled with growing misery among the area’s poorest and most vulnerable people.

Buchanan told the Health Board on Tuesday that he and Elenbaas talked with a wide range of public officials and agency representatives to gather data, including the Prosecutor’s Office, the Sheriff’s Office , health officials and the courts.

District Court Judge Angela Anderson told them that she was dismissing at least one drug case every week because the person facing trial had died of an overdose.

“I was just flabbergasted,” Buchanan said.


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