Heroin deaths, overdoses increase

The last month of the year arrives with the number of non-fatal overdoses from heroin and other opioid drugs already well over twice the level for all of 2015.

The death toll from overdoses is also running ahead of last year, but only slightly more so.

The area encompassing Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick, Page, and Clarke counties has recorded 26 deaths so far this year and 120 non-fatal overdoses.

Last year ended with 55 non-fatal overdoses, less than half the total for the same period this year. Fatalities through November 2015 stood at 24 and finished the year at 30.

The near future is unlikely to provide much relief. Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, said the weeks spanning the holidays have brought a surge of overdoses, fatal and non-fatal, in past years.

“I believe if we stay with the trends we have seen the last few years, we will be either around the same number of overdose deaths or exceed it by a couple,” Cummings said.

As in past years, the majority of the deaths have been concentrated in the area of Frederick County where a total of 18 have lost their lives – seven in Winchester and 11 in the county. Front Royal and Warren County have a combined four deaths, and Strasburg and Shenandoah County three.

Cummings attributed the skyrocketing number of non-fatal overdoses to a combination of increased reporting and an actual increase in overdoses.

She said many addicts are overdosing more than once and others have been stricken after using heroin laced with fentanyl, a prescription opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Overdoses leaped during one week in mid-October when 19 were stricken, two of whom died.

“We attribute that to a bad batch, which means we believe we had a batch of heroin in our area that was laced with fentanyl,” Cummings said.

Narcan, sometimes known by its formal name of Naloxone, continues to play an essential role in saving the lives of overdose patients. The drug works immediately to counter the effects of opioids but it is not a miracle cure.

Narcan has a half-life, which means that someone revived by it can lapse back into a state of overdose if the patient has enough heroin lingering in his system.

“It’s really important they seek medical attention immediately because if they come back into an overdose, it may take another dose of Narcan to bring them back,” Cummings said.

Cummings said the newly opened drug court for Frederick and Clarke counties and Winchester is fulfilling the hopes of its supporters and the addicts who have enrolled in it.

The court combines judicial proceedings with strict treatment and rehabilitation programs to keep addicts from relapsing. The heart of the drug court is a plea agreement approved by a judge under which the defendant is excused from a likely jail sentence in return for participation in treatment and rehabilitation that is scheduled to last at least a year and probably much longer.

Cummings already sees a difference among those accepted into the drug court program. One participant has gone more than 100 days sober since entering the drug court on Aug. 16, and others are also showing solid progress.

“We are already seeing the success of this program, and how it can truly transform lives,” Cummings said.

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