Overdoses vault ahead of last year’s numbers

The number of heroin overdoses in the area is running ahead of last year’s figures for the period through August, and some drug addiction experts worry that much worse is to come.

The 62 non-fatal overdoses recorded so far this year have already overtaken the entire total of 55 from 2015. The tally from fatal overdoses is also bleak – 19 compared to 15 at this time in 2015, a year that finished with a total of 30 overdose deaths.

The figures are taken from five Northern Virginia counties – Frederick, Shenandoah, Warren, Page and Clarke – and several towns within their borders. Frederick County and Winchester have accounted for 13 of the overdose deaths so far this year, followed by three in Warren County and Front Royal, two in Shenandoah County and Strasburg and one in Clarke County.

Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, said the need is greater than ever to find ways to get addicts into treatment programs. She likened drug addiction to a disease that deserves the same kind of response as heart disease or diabetes. Still, only one out of 10 addicts enters a treatment program, Cummings said.

“Certainly, we’re facing a public health crisis, and it’s not heroin,” Cummings said. “The public health crisis is addiction. We need to be treating these individuals suffering from addiction to help them get well.”

Narcan, a version of the drug Naxalone, has been a key factor in keeping the death toll from skyrocketing. EMTs have long used Narcan to revive overdose victims near death. Sheriff’s deputies in Frederick and Clarke counties have also begun carrying Narcan recently, which allows them to administer it if they reach an overdose victim
before an ambulance crew does.

Cummings said Frederick County deputies have saved 9 ½ lives with Narcan, a fetus in a womb accounting for the one-half. Clarke County deputies have saved one overdose victim using Narcan.

An enormous spike in overdoses recently in West Virginia and Ohio, all linked to two drugs added to heroin, has been especially troubling to those trying to counter the epidemic in Virginia.

They fear the 174 heroin overdoses reported in Cincinnati emergency rooms last week is a portent that Virginia cannot ignore.

Cincinnati officials aren’t sure what caused the 174 overdoses, but they believe a quantity of heroin laced with carfentanil, a tranquilizer used on elephants and other large animals, was the source.

“It’s scary to think if that were to come into our area or when it comes into our area the impact it would have on folks struggling with addiction in our area,” Cummings said.

Another 27 overdoses were reported within four hours a few days earlier in Huntington, West Virginia. Officials in Huntington are still trying to learn what other drug was in the heroin taken by those who overdosed, but Cummings said fentanyl is a likely culprit.

Fentanyl, like carfentanil and heroin, is classified as an opioid. Drug dealers have been adding fentanyl and carfentanil to the heroin they sell in an effort to give it a greater wallop that will encourage more return customers.

Cummings said fentanyl has already arrived in the area. The drug is so powerful that it can poison someone through skin contact with an amount as little as a grain of salt, which puts EMTs and law enforcement officials at risk when they try to revive an overdose victim.

Cummings said law enforcement officials in some Maryland communities have taken to carrying Narcan to save other police officers in case they inadvertently come in contact with fentanyl.

Dr. Indra Cidambi, an addiction psychiatrist and founder and medical director of the Center for Network Therapy in New Jersey, said carfentanil is even more powerful than fentanyl and 10,000 times stronger than morphine.

Cidambi said adding fentanyl or carfentanil to heroin amounts to a deadly marketing ploy by drug dealers who don’t disclose what is in the drug they are selling to unwitting users.

“This is a business with the dealer cutting it with whatever they can, and this is costing people their lives,” Cidambi said.

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

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