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'America has an addiction problem': Spokane Co. officials discuss opioid crisis

Spokane Co. Jail Interim Director Michael Sparber said assertions that jail staff have ignored inmates' calls for help are unfounded.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Three Spokane County officials held a press conference on Thursday afternoon to address what they call an "opioid crisis" affecting the community and contributing to the death of inmates at the Spokane County Jail.

The press conference included Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, Interim Director Michael Sparber and County Health Officer Bob Lutz. The three couldn't comment on any specific cases or inmates at the jail, but spoke about jail operations in general and drugs in the community.

Sparber spoke broadly about the nine inmates who have died in the jail since June 15, 2017. He said he believes it's unfair to look at the deaths as a group instead of individual cases.

"It's not fair to lump them together as nine deaths. They each have their own individual circumstances," Sparber said.

Sparber also said the jail staff has saved lives and don't get enough credit for the work they do.

The press conference comes one day after the mother of a woman who died at the Spokane County Jail questioned whether her daughter received adequate medical attention before her death. 

RELATED: 'She was begging for help': Mother of dead Spokane Co. Jail inmate speaks out

"Understand that the men and women here are just doing a phenomenal job at saving lives," he said. "[Staff have had] 50 uses of Narcan since the start of the year. That's significant. We are plugging as many holes as we can."

(Mobile users, click here to watch a recording of the press conference.)

When asked about the review of the jail's handling of the deaths, Sparber said an independent doctor is conducting a review by looking at the available medical records from each death to determine the root cause that led to each death. He estimated the earliest the review could be done is late July.

A common thought shared by Knezovich and Sparber was the emerging prevalence of Fentanyl , a highly lethal opioid. Knezovich said deaths from fentanyl, especially versions of the drug illegally entering the country from China, will likely pose an even greater threat than heroin and other more commonly used opioids.  

"We're just now starting to see the tip of the iceberg with Fentanyl," Knezovich said. "Fentanyl is going to be more of a problem that the opioid issue because it is more deadly."

The National Institute of Drug Abuse said that Fentanyl is like morphine, but 50 to 100 times more potent.

"America has an addiction problem, and until we start dealing with the addiction problem, we don't fix this problem," Knezovich said of the opioid crisis.

RELATED: Inmate screamed for an hour before death in Spokane Co. Jail, witness says

He also said methamphetamine is coming over the U.S. Border from "superlabs in Mexico."

Lutz also spoke about Fetanyl, and said Washington is seeing a spike in deaths from Fetanyl-related overdoses than later than states in the eastern and midwest parts of the country. He did add that the country overall is seeing a spike in these deaths.

As for Spokane specifically, Lutz said the number of overdose deaths have actually declined while the nationwide number has grown.

Lutz said drug addiction affects many types of people, but the incarcerated population tends to be at higher risk. He also said the issue affects the American people at all levels from nationwide to the local level.

"This is a local problem we are trying to address at many levels," Lutz said.

Lutz said that those addicted to drugs will always try to find a way to chase the feeling that made them addicted.

"Once they are addicted, they will use a substance to feel something or not feel something," Lutz said.

A large portion of the population that uses illicit drugs is using meth, Lutz said, and those addicted before they are incarcerated will likely make a great effort to bring drugs with them into the facility.

While Lutz said the medical world is beginning to better understand addiction and the physiological and psychological effects of the disease, he and Knezovich said they think environment plays a large role in the development of drug addiction.

RELATED: Opioids: Time to Talk

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