Coronavirus Chronicles: Amid pandemic, local opioid overdoses accelerate

Amy Hill, an opioid outreach specialist with Snohomish County, meets with a client. (Photo courtesy Amy Hill)

While COVID-19’s devastating toll has taken center stage over the past year, another health crisis has quietly raged on.

Nationally, opioid overdoses have accelerated amid the pandemic’s daily life disruptions. In Washington state, overdose deaths increased by 38% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period the previous year, according to the Department of Health.

Even more locally, those same alarming trends are also playing out, said Amy Hill, an opioid outreach specialist with the Snohomish County Human Services Department.

“The bottom line is that the social connection just isn’t there,” she said. “Not having any support is really traumatic.”

Nationwide, overdose deaths were already on the rise in part because of synthetic or illicitly manufactured drugs like fentanyl, a powerful opioid. In Washington state, for example, fentanyl has been found in counterfeit pills that people may confuse as prescription opioid pills.

The pandemic’s added stressors only deepened the crisis. Social isolation is not only a threat to mental wellbeing but physical health, too, experts say.  If someone begins to overdose alone, there’s no one to intercede and prevent death with the life-saving medicine naloxone.

Struggling to connect

As one of her roles, Hill reaches out to people who have survived an overdose and helps connect them with recovery services. She has found clients in homeless camps. Others have been recently incarcerated. Many were estranged from their families and the connection with another human was vital to their recovery efforts.

Before the pandemic, she would often meet clients at a cafe. She’d buy them a cup of coffee, listen to their story and explore the available treatment options together. On some occasions, Hill would sit next to clients and wait while they called for an appointment. If they encountered frustrations – like long hold times – she’d be there silently supporting them.

“Sitting with someone and going through the process together is really important,” she said. “And with the pandemic that’s been taken away.”

Over the past year, Hill was still able to reach out to some clients by phone, but it hasn’t been the same. As the pandemic stretched on, she got more creative and met people in a parking lot or a park, though that also posed a challenge in the colder, rainy months.

Despite the pandemic’s isolation, there have been some moments of hope. She pointed to one client who has now hit the four-month marker of being clean and sober, after a long, grueling journey. He’s now off the streets and living in a clean and sober house where he’s helping with landscaping and contributing to the daily chores.

“It’s really great to see his motivation looking for employment and wanting to do good,” she said.

Family tradeoffs

Lara Okoloko

The pandemic’s impact has extended to families of people struggling with opioid addiction as well, said Edmonds-based counselor Lara Okoloko, who works with families impacted by addiction. While some may assume parents send their adult children away in hopes of “getting better,” the reality is more complicated, she said.

Pre-pandemic, individuals would often come and go from their parents’ homes. Some clients allowed their grown children to live with them – even as they struggled with drug use—because they wanted to keep an eye on them and support them through what’s often a long and complex recovery process.

Suddenly, though, those interactions posed a threat to older parents’ own health and wellbeing.

“Families might feel differently now,” she said. “I help them figure out what boundaries work for them and their families. That’s much more complicated than a blanket declaration, telling them to go away.”

Locally, families have gotten creative over the past year as they’ve tried to balance supporting their loved ones with protecting their own health. Some have sectioned off a separate part of the house for their grown child or put up a tent in the yard while others arranged motel stays after potential COVID-19 exposures.

Still others had to make the tough decision to separate completely, she said, explaining their thought process: “I can’t risk my own health. You need to stay somewhere else.”

Unexpected upsides

For some people who struggle with opioid addiction, the slower pace of pandemic life has had unexpected benefits, Okoloko said.

“While some have had a terrible time, for others, it’s been an opportunity to slow down and find stability for the first time,” she said.

Isolated at home, often with parents nearby, they’ve been able to create stable routines that incorporate treatment medications. The reprieve from the stress of daily life has provided an opportunity to focus on recovery.

Another unexpected benefit of pandemic: virtual therapy. People who couldn’t find a nearby therapist with openings can now access someone elsewhere in the state.

Meanwhile, treatment providers are continuing to work, both virtually and in-person. For some, a virtual appointment option might present less of a barrier than going in-person. Plus, family members can sit in the room for support during a videocall intake process.

Looking back over the past year, Okoloko sees some opportunities in times of upheaval, some of which might continue once the pandemic subsides.

“At this point, it feels more like a mixed bag with positives for some and negatives for others,” she said.

— By Kellie Schmitt

This article is part of an ongoing series exploring the impact of coronavirus on the life, work and health of South Snohomish County residents. If you or someone you know has a story to tell, please email us at For other stories in this series, click here.

For more information and resources on opioid overdoses in Washington state, check out




  1. I hope that the discussion of drug abuse and addiction does not become a casual conversation. I am not sure where a parent would take a young adult or teen to be treated. I do not have that worry at 74 years of age. It took too many years of contrived ignorance before oxycontin was defined as a powerful addictive drug when used recklessly or not. Although the state of Washington has laws about selling marijuana there are no guarantees that there has been less addiction of serious drugs by persons of all ages.
    The question is how do we make progress? I am sure there are many well educated advisors to talk the concern, however I am not sure how progress can be defined to reduce drug addiction. It is as serious as any potential foreign adversary.

    1. They have a detox clinic private right here in Edmonds. I called for a friend. No Medicare or Medicaid..of course. But for a pretty simple 30 day stay…it was 31,000.00. For 1 month. Yes…so woke here I can barely see it.

  2. James, I flew to Texas last week. I caught a red-eye back into Seattle, down at about 10pm. I was walking out of the terminal and a man (an airport worker judging by his high-vis vest and kneepads) was sitting by the door waiting for a bus, sucking on an air-duster to get high. After a big hit he sort of swayed and shook around for a minute. Right before getting on the bus the driver told him to put a mask on. I can’t imagine anyone stopping him from abusing an air duster. The world is fully stupid.

  3. It is because the state has taken pain medication away from chronic pain patients labeling them along with drug addicts. The two are not the same at all. The state is forcing the people who live with unbearable pain to either bo onto the streets for drugs or to kill themselves. It seems crazy that the doctors cannot give out pain meds nor can pain clinics and still there is a drug problem. It isn’t real pain patients who are the problem but the street drugs. Now 80 year olds are being forced to take their walkers and wheelchairs to the streets to get pain relief. They aren’t looking for a high they just want to be able to function. If politicians knew what real pain was we would not be trusting them, but we would be trusting our doctors instead, they see the MRI’s and the xrays. What is being done to people with real valid pain is criminal!!

  4. When you study the root or commonality of individuals who struggle with drug addiction, incarceration, homelessness, and trafficked children, you’ll find the root/commonality is fatherlessness and the breakdown of the family and the failings of the foster care system.

    If we are committed to truly fixing these issues, then we need to get back to core family values.

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