Emergency department head writing about heroin epidemic

By Joe Beck

The heroin plague making itself felt in jails, courtrooms and emergency rooms in the Northern Shenandoah Valley has led one local medical professional to write an extended article on the subject that she plans to submit for publication.

Edie McGoff has seen and treated addicts for years as emergency department director at Warren Memorial Hospital. Two months ago, she learned a colleague lost a 25-year-old son to a heroin overdose in a local motel.

He was far from the only one. The Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force has counted 16 overdose deaths so far this year among the five counties included in its jurisdiction – Frederick, Warren, Page, Clarke and Shenandoah.

Overdoses killed three people during all of last year.

McGoff obtained some figures of her own from the drug task that she is incorporating into her article. They confirm the spread of heroin through the area. The figures show arrests for heroin sales or possession leaping from 55 in 2012 to 89 so far this year. The figures show 59.32 grams seized by law enforcement in 2012 and 257 this year.

“The reason I’m writing this article is, I think, more emergency nurses need to be aware of heroin,” McGoff said, adding that her colleagues typically are focused on catastrophic illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes.

“We really don’t think too much about heroin,” McGoff said. “I think it’s a good opportunity for us to be educated.”

Law enforcement officials and medical professionals from throughout the area met at the Warren County Public Safety Building Monday to talk about ways of stemming the rise in heroin use and sales.

Virginia State Police Special Agent Jay Perry said the 16 deaths so far this year works out to a rate of about one every other week. The actual number of overdose cases is “probably way more” than the 44 documented in 2013, Perry said.

Perry said the high from heroin is very similar to other opiate-based drugs such as oxycontin, which has been much more prevalent in this area until heroin began surging over the last two years.

A combination of the increasing difficulty in obtaining oxycontin and falling prices for heroin on the street are leading more people to choose heroin for their highs, Perry said.

McGoff cites a local price of $20 to $50 for a bag equaling 1/10th of a gram of heroin.

“One person here can go to Baltimore and buy one gram for $100 to $120,” McGoff writes in her article. “They come back to their community and sell one package (1/10 gram) for $50. This way they can be self-sufficient and support their habit. It takes one to 10 packs a day to support a habit.”

Overdosing is often caused by varying levels of heroin potency and purity that are unknown to local addicts who make their purchases from dealers they don’t know, Perry said.

“Most of our people go to Baltimore and its open air drug market,” Perry said of local addicts. “If one dealer is selling something more potent than another and (the addict) uses the same amount, that can lead to overdosing.”

Capt. Steve Barr of the Warren County Sheriff’s Office estimated that 75 of the jail’s 185 inmates as of Wednesday were incarcerated on drug charges, including heroin.

Barr and others interviewed said withdrawal from heroin is painful, but only rarely causes jailed addicts to require hospitalization. Barr said addicts are more likely to need emergency treatment for AIDS and hepatitis infections transmitted through dirty needles used for injecting heroin.

Barr said many heroin addicts, having endured the misery of several days of withdrawal, retain a psychological craving for the drug. For that reason, he said, the jail conducts anti-drug classes under the auspices of Northwestern Community Services.

“They still want to get high,” Barr said of the addicts. “And given the opportunity, they’ll go right back to it knowing they’re going to be readdicted. To many of them, it’s well worth it.”

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com