Governor Terry McAuliffe declared the Virginia opioid addiction crisis a Public Health Emergency on Nov. 21 following an announcement from State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine.
Opioid overdoses – nearly 880 total – accounted for more than 90 percent of the state’s drug deaths last year. Prescription pain medications claimed more than 4,000 Virginians’ lives, while heroin took nearly 1,400 from 2007 to 2015, according to the Virginia Department of Health’s annual report.
“We cannot stand by while these drugs harm our communities and our economy,” McAuliffe said. “That is why I support Dr. Levine’s decision to declare a public health emergency, to heighten awareness of this issue, provide a framework for further actions to fight it, and to save Virginians’ lives.”
In the first half of 2016, the total number of fatal drug overdoses in Virginia increased 35 percent, when compared to the same time period in 2015. By the end of 2016, the numbers of fatal opioid overdose deaths are expected to increase by 77 percent compared to five years ago.
In addition to declaring the overdose rate a Public Health Emergency, Levine issued a standing order which allows any Virginian to obtain the drug Naloxone, which can be used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations.
“Too many Virginia families have lost someone to opioid addiction,” Levine said. “These actions today will not diminish their loss, but we owe it to them and each other to work together, watch out for each other and continue to combat the seriousness of this crisis.”
The standing order removes previous barriers to accessing Naloxone by serving as a prescription written for the general public, opposed to a specific individual.
“My team and I worked with a bipartisan coalition to expand Naloxone availability because we knew it could save lives and prevent the tragedy and heartbreak that too many Virginia families already know,” said Attorney General Mark Herring.
In Richmond, heroin overdoses jumped from five fatalities in 2010 to 38 in 2015. According to tentative data from the Virginia Department of Health, from January through July 2016 there are 14 recorded deaths attributed to heroin overdoses.
“Richmond is on track to experience more than twice the number of heroin-related overdoses this year as compared to last year,” said Richmond Police Capt. Michael Zohab in a September statement announcing a coalition of local groups working together to help mitigate the growing problem.
More than a dozen local organizations are working together through the Recovery Coalition to address the state, and city-wide, crisis. VCU’s Health System, Department of Psychology, Institute for Women’s Health, Rams in Recovery program and the C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research are all stakeholders, as well as emergency responders and recovery-focused non-profit organizations.
McAuliffe’s Public Health Emergency declaration is also in light of officials’ concern regarding evidence of a concentration of Carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used to sedate animals such as elephants, in certain parts of Virginia — primarily in the Tidewater region.
“As we see the nature of drug addiction shift, from prescription opioids to heroin and synthetic fentanyl, we must be vigilant and ready to respond quickly,” said Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel.
In Richmond, fentanyl only accounted for eight total overdose deaths between 2007 and 2013, but that number spiked sharply in 2014, when fentanyl was responsible for 11 deaths in the River City that year alone. Sixteen Richmond overdose fatalities were solely attributed to fentanyl in 2015.
According to the Virginia Department of Health, the total number of fatal fentanyl-related drug overdoses have sharply increased since 2012 which coincides with the increase in fatal heroin overdoses. By 2016, most fatal fentanyl-related overdoses were due to illicitly produced fentanyl and not pharmaceutically produced fentanyl, according to the VDH.
“For far too long, stigmas have plagued addiction struggles,” said Jack Barber, the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health’s interim commissioner.
“By declaring a public health emergency, the Commonwealth of Virginia is bringing the opioid epidemic to the forefront of public discussion,” Barber said. “It is important that all Virginians learn how to recognize the signs of addiction and be able to help those struggling with addiction to seek care.”
In September 2015, the Center for Disease Control dedicated funds to 16 states with the highest increases in overdose deaths, including Virginia.
Of the 12 states with statistically significant increases in opioid overdoses from 2013 to 2014, Virginia ranked ninth with a 14.7 percent change over the course of a year.
Nationally, more people overdosed fatally from opioid abuse in 2014 than any other year on record. In response, the CDC dedicated funding through the “Prevention for States” program in September 2015.
The CDC plans to give selected states annual awards between $750,000 and $1 million to advance prevention measures through 2019.
Sarah is a senior studying political science and philosophy of law. She is also a copyeditor for INK Magazine and a reporter for the Capital News Service wire. Last spring, the Virginia Press Association awarded Sarah 3rd place for Public Safety Writing Portfolio and the Hearst Awards awarded her 4th place for Breaking News Writing. Sarah was invited to the White House in April for the Administration’s inaugural College Reporter Day. She previously worked as an editorial intern for Congressional Quarterly Researcher and SAGE Business Researcher in Washington, D.C., as well as RVAmag and GayRVA.com.
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Julie is a senior studying photography with a minor in media studies. This is her third year working with the CT, and she spent last summer interning for Richmond Magazine. Last semester, Julie spent a semester abroad studying photography at The University of the West of England. After Julie graduates she plans on pursuing a career as a photojournalist for print and online publications.
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