DC mayor pressed to declare public health emergency over opioid overdoses

Asiyah Timimi, who runs a youth anti-violence program, said she was driving down New York Avenue when she saw a young man overdosing outside of a McDonalds.

“I turned him on his side and he was just … the fluid was just pouring out,” Timimi said. “His friend didn’t have a clue what to do. He was punching him, dragging him, kicking him.”

Elizabeth Stoll, a parent in Ward 5, said that in September, kids at her son’s preschool found fentanyl containers on the school grounds.

“Toddlers, children in pre-K three and four, brought them home and into the classroom,” Stoll said.

She said that in recent months, a man was stabbed near the school and another man brandished a gun near the campus, prompting a lockdown at the school.

Stoll and Timimi were two of a dozen community organizers, doctors and health workers calling on the city to declare a public health emergency at a city council hearing Thursday.

The council’s Committee on Health held a public roundtable on a recently introduced council resolution that urges D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to declare a public health emergency to better address the opioid and fentanyl crisis in the District.

According to the office of D.C.’s Chief Medical Examiner, a record 461 people died of opioid overdose in D.C. in 2022, most of whom were Black men, and many of them over 50. There have been 296 overdose deaths so far this year.

Council member Christina Henderson, chairperson of the Committee on Health, said that an emergency declaration would free up much-needed resources and allow for more effective coordination between government agencies and community organizations.

“This includes mobilizing vital resources such as funds, medical supplies, personnel and equipment, possibly with the support of federal agencies,” Henderson said. “It empowers the District to implement necessary policy and operational changes, and heightens public awareness about the severity of the situation.”

Dr. Barbara Bazron, head of D.C.’s Department of Behavioral Health, was asked repeatedly by Ward 5 Council member Zachary Parker if the city does in fact have an opioid crisis.

“What I can say is that what we see is that people are dying,” Bazron said. “If we compare the data over years, as a result of fentanyl and xylazine and other things are coming into the drug supply there is a greater impact on our community.”

“I think one death is a death too many, so we need to address it,” she said.

Bazron insisted the city is stepping up its harm reduction efforts, including overseeing a needle exchange program, making Naloxone widely available and increasing access to life-saving treatment.

This week, the DBH-led Opioid Abatement Advisory Commission held its first meeting to discuss how to spend over $80 million in settlement money the District received from drug makers to help address the effects of the epidemic.

Bazron also told the committee the administration is willing to have a discussion, with respect to an emergency declaration.

Both Maryland and Virginia have declared public health emergencies to combat opioid overdoses.

WTOP has reached out to the mayor’s office for comment.

Shayna Estulin

Shayna Estulin is an anchor/reporter for WTOP. She started her career in New York City as a local TV reporter and has since covered foreign affairs and national politics as a Washington correspondent. She also anchored a nightly news show for an international network.

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