10 fatal overdoses, 26 non-fatals so far in 2017

Just a month and a half into 2017, overdoses throughout the Shenandoah Valley are adding up.

According to data provided last week by Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, seven people have died of a drug overdose in Shenandoah, Warren, Frederick, Clarke and Page counties, and 19 people have suffered non-fatal overdoses.

“The bottom line is we need to get more people into treatment,” she said. “… Addiction is a disease, it’s a chronic brain disease. There’s a stigma associated with that and we’ve worked hard to overcome that stigma and we have to keep working on it, because that stigma is preventing individuals from getting the help that they need.”

Since that update, Si Schiavone, coordinator for the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force said as of Friday there have been three fatal overdoses in the past week, along with seven non-fatals.

“It’s not anything new people are hearing, they just need to start listening,” Schiavonne said. “You will die if you use heroin, there’s no other way around it.”

One big problem law enforcement and public officials are having is how to handle heroin that’s cut with fentanyl, an opiate 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin.

He added it’s probably going to get worse through the year as fentanyl becomes more and more accessible. He said a batch of heroin laced with fentanyl has been making its way around the valley, leaving a trail of overdoses in its wake.

“We have been seeing more of that [fentanyl] this past month,” he said. “That weekend of Jan. 27, we had three deaths all in the same day. We had a rush on those lab results where usually they take four months. We already got them back, and they all had forms of fentanyl in them.”

The presence of fentanyl in heroin can put public health officials in between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, they have a duty to spread the word that a dangerous drug is circulating in the community.

On the flipside, many addicts will hear about a particularly powerful batch and immediately try to procure some.

Cummings said while it could backfire, she believes putting the word out there is the most effective approach.

“I’ve heard that individuals with substance abuse disorders may be trying to find the bad batch that led to an overdose because it might be more pure,” she said. “The other thing I’m hearing from that community is when we put out these alerts, they might be more aware and they might be a little bit more cautious in their use.”

From a law enforcement perspective, Shenandoah County Sheriff Timothy C. Carter said he ultimately agreed with Cummings’s perspective.

“I think we have a duty to tell people when we know that there is — for lack of a better word -a bad batch,” he said. “The downside to that is a bad batch to you or I might mean that this is something that’s highly potent that can kill people, but a user or an addict would look at that statement and say, ‘Maybe we can buy some of this batch and just dial it back and not take as much.'”

Beyond the short-term job of getting the word out, Carter said the key to solving the issue is going to be a long-term focus on helping addicts get the assistance they need both before and after they’re arrested.

Likewise, Cummings said in the area, there are currently no detoxification centers or crisis stability units for people with mental health problems, a frequent tie-in with substance abuse disorders.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com