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News / Northwest

Seattle to open post-overdose recovery center

By David Kroman, The Seattle Times
Published: May 9, 2024, 7:03pm

SEATTLE — The Downtown Emergency Service Center will soon open a new space for people to recover and receive treatment after they’ve overdosed on drugs — mostly fentanyl — at its Morrison Hotel near Pioneer Square, Mayor Bruce Harrell announced at a news conference Thursday.

The new center, slated to open in mid-2025, will be a small answer to a spiraling crisis. More than 1,000 people died of an overdose in King County last year as cheap and potent fentanyl continued to flood the region.

Emergency responders will offer to transport people there after they’ve overdosed and been revived with Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of opioids on the brain.

Receiving a dose of Narcan can trigger intense withdrawal symptoms and often lead people to quickly seek out more fentanyl. The hope by Seattle officials and service providers is the new space, called the Overdose Recovery and Care Access center, can offer medication to ease those symptoms in place of another possibly deadly dose of street drugs.

“The public health space is not an area where the city historically has operated,” Harrell said. “But, quite candidly, the conditions we see on our streets because of fentanyl require every level of governance to step up in advancing urgent compassionate, loving and innovative solutions.”

Those who come to the center will be allowed to stay for up to 23 hours. During that period, they will have access to medical care and treatment options. Medical staff may offer buprenorphine, which can ease withdrawal symptoms, and an initial round of methadone, the most commonly used treatment for opioid substance use.

Case managers will also be available to connect people to treatment and housing options, though director of DESC Daniel Malone acknowledged both are lacking.

“We’ve got some more work to do as we think about where they go, where they’re going to stay if they don’t have a place to live in those situations,” said Malone. “That’s a conversation for another day.”

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The Morrison Hotel, where the ORCA center will be housed, has a long history in Seattle, most recently as a massive congregate shelter for people struggling with homelessness.

Service providers sought to de-emphasize the use of large shelters during the early days of the pandemic, amid fears of a super spreader event through a vulnerable population.

On Thursday, the once-crowded shelter had been stripped bare in preparation for work to come.

The total cost of the center will be $12 million, with much of the funding coming from a federal Community Development Block Grant. Washington state and King County are also helping to fund the project, as well as a $1 million private donation.

An additional $1.35 million will fund treatment services provided by Evergreen Treatment Services.

A plan for the overdose space was included in a 2023 executive order from Harrell on fentanyl that promised $27 million in spending to help address the crisis.

There’s no mechanism to force people into using the facility, but health workers and emergency responders said Thursday they expected interest would be high. Dr. Richard Waters said they could see up to 20 to 25 people a day.

Caleb Banta-Green, director of the University of Washington Center for Community-Engaged Drug Education, Epidemiology and Research, said he doesn’t anticipate anyone needing too hard of a nudge toward the space. The feeling of withdrawal after receiving a Narcan dose is powerful enough that most people will seek out help.

“We don’t think we need to convince people to come here,” he said. “What we think is that if we offer a great place and word starts to spread, people will want to come here.”