Overdose deaths on track to double last year’s numbers

Lauren Cummings

In the Northern Shenandoah Valley, the epidemic of addiction to heroin and other opioid drugs is showing no signs of slowing down.

For the six localities that make up this area – Winchester and the counties of Frederick, Clarke, Shenandoah, Page and Warren – data shows that  halfway through the year, overdose rates are at the full-year totals seen in 2015 and 2016.

There was only one death from a drug overdose in 2012, which has been marked as the beginning of the opioid problem, according to data from the Northwest Regional Drug Task Force, and that number jumped to 21 in 2013. In 2014, there were 33 opioid overdose deaths, and there were 30 fatal overdoses in both 2015 and 2016.

In past years, non-fatal overdoses rose dramatically as well. In 2012 there were only 18 non-fatal overdoses, but by 2013, there were 100, Cummings said. “Those numbers decreased in the next two years, with 73 non-fatal overdoses in 2014 and 55 in 2015. That number more than doubled in 2016, with 125 reported non-fatal overdoses in the area.

In 2017 to date, there have been 28 fatal opioid  overdoses, and, as of July 5, there have been 105 non-fatal opioid overdoses.

Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, said the trend in non-fatal overdose rate is undeniably bleak. “We had hoped that we would never exceed our numbers that we saw in 2013,” Cummings said of the non-fatal overdose rate. “We’re on track to possibly even, unfortunately, doubling our numbers from 2013.”

Cummings added that the rise in the death rate can be linked to the rise in Fentanyl, a synthetic opiate that can be absorbed through the skin and can kill with a salt-grain-sized amount.

According to data from the Virginia Department of Health, there were far more emergency department visits in the area for unintentional non-heroin opioid overdoses than for unintentional heroin overdoses.

Cummings said that this comes from the over-prescription of medications, and that many substance abusers she’s encountered say that their addiction began with pills in a family member’s medicine cabinet. In the drug disposal bins at stores like CVS, Cummings added, there are an average of 30 to 40 pounds of pill bottles being emptied from them every week.

Authorities monitor widespread narcotic uses in six-year patterns, Cummings said, because after that a new or different drug becomes more popular among substance abusers. She said that 2017 is the sixth year of  opioids, and that they have already seen a resurgence of cocaine use in the area, making it very likely that it is the next drug to take over.

“What we really have been tracking throughout the years is not only the overdose deaths, the nonfatal overdoses, but the arrests attributable to addiction,” Cummings said. “What we noticed, along with the increase in deaths and nonfatal overdoses, is an increase in the crimes attributable to addiction.”

Cummings added that crimes like larceny, fraud, embezzlement and burglary are on the rise because of the opioid epidemic, and with cocaine use comes an increase of similar property crimes from people trying to support their addiction. There has also been a rise in children being placed in foster care and babies being born “substance-exposed,” Cummings said, also as a result of the opioid epidemic.

Still, even with the staggering statistics, Cummings and others involved with the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition have been working diligently since the crisis was identified to put an end to the epidemic. In 2013, when the overdose rate spiked, Cummings said that their main focus was the heroin problem.

“What we quickly realized is that we were not facing a heroin crisis; this is an addiction crisis,” Cummings said.

With funding from the local counties and Valley Health, the coalition was able to form a drug treatment court program that helps probationers who violated their probation because of a substance abuse problem or non-violent felony offenders whose crimes were related to drug use.

Since its opening in August 2016, the court has served 14 people who suffer from drug addiction. Cummings said that a barrier in serving more people has been the heavy caseload the probation offices in Winchester and Frederick and Clarke counties are handling at once. The coalition is working to help get a part-time probation officer to help with the caseload.

Cummings said that the drug treatment court program has served as a “microcosm” to what these drug-addicted individuals are facing. She said that there are not many adequate treatment centers in the area – ones that follow evidence-based treatment from the American Society of Addiction Medicine. She added that there are no withdrawal facilities in the area, which is a large part of substance abuse treatment, and “little to no” resources for youth who struggle with substance abuse.

Those participating in the drug treatment court program also struggle with securing “safe and sober” housing arrangements, Cummings said, and also struggle with transportation to and from probation offices and court dates without a vehicle of their own.

The coalition partnered with the Area 1 Rotary Clubs, which granted the coalition funds to train peer recovery specialists, and provide three-months of housing to the drug court program’s clients. The club has also helped acquire taxi vouchers for those recovering from substance abuse so they can go wherever they need to.

“What we’ve found is that once we’re fulfilling their basic needs, they’re able to progress through the program because they’re focused on their recovery rather than worrying about, ‘Where am I going to lay my head tonight?’ or, ‘How am i going to eat?'” Cummings said.