WALLA WALLA – The death Tuesday of a 20-year-old woman in Waitsburg marked the third drug-related death in the Walla Walla area since the first of the year.
Illegal drug use is suspected, but Walla Walla County Coroner Richard Greenwood said a toxicology report is pending. Greenwood added that the woman’s boyfriend had also overdosed but had been transported to a local hospital for treatment.
The Sheriff’s Office said it would be issuing a statement on the case later today.
According to Greenwood, there have been several non-fatal overdose cases already this year, in addition to the three deaths.
In an interview, Greenwood said the rate of overdoses in the county is a continuation of a spike that began in 2012.
“Last year really caught our attention,” Greenwood said. “And this year hasn’t slowed up.”
In 2012 Greenwood reported 46 drug- or alcohol-related deaths. Of those, nearly 40 involved alcohol and 11 involved illicit drugs. Five deaths involved alcohol and prescription drugs. Greenwood also reported the death of an unborn baby at 38 weeks due to the mother’s consumption of illicit drugs.
“We had a rash of older gentlemen who literally drank themselves to death,” Greenwood said, adding there were two deaths linked to over-the-counter medication.
Walla Walla Fire Chief Bob Yancey also noted an increase in overdoses and “illegal drug related calls” in 2013.
In 2012 there were 21 overdoses, including suicides, and nine calls related to illegal drugs. In 2013 overdoses rose to 31 and illegal drug related calls spiked to 24, according to Yancey.
Calls relating to alcohol or withdrawal symptoms rose from 70 to 80 from 2012 to 2013.
Both men said that tracking overdoses and drug related deaths is very tricky because there are often a number of other symptoms and issues involved.
Greenwood pointed out that toxicology reports often take 90 days to get back, further complicating reporting, and that data tracking at a state level doesn’t always link deaths to alcohol or drugs.
“If you die of chronic alcoholism, that’s considered a “natural” death,” Greenwood said.
He added that other drug related causes of death can include infections from injecting drugs with a needle, or even dying in a vehicle collision.
“A lot of deaths won’t be out-and-out drug overdoses, but complications thereof,” Greenwood said.
Capt. Chris Buttice of the Walla Walla Police Department said that drug use continues to be an issue in Walla Walla, and that overdoses, like drug use in general, seems to run in cycles. As police begin to close down one supply chain, another type of drug may increase.
Buttice added that overdoses, especially with heroin, can spike when users get new sources of the drug that have higher concentrations, or “purity” levels.
Luke Hegdal can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8326.