29 opioid deaths in area so far this year

WINCHESTER — The area is on track for the highest number of yearly opioid deaths since official record keeping began, the executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition said Monday.

Lauren Cummings told a conference organized by the coalition that there have been 29 deaths from opioid overdoses so far this year, putting the region on pace for around 44 opioid overdose deaths by the end of the year. The next highest number in the seven-year period since 2011 was 33 overdose deaths.

Cummings attributed the uptick to the emergence of fentanyl, a powerful opioid that is occasionally laced into heroin in order to give users a cheaper and more potent high.

“A lot of times, folks will come up to me and say, ‘What is going on?'” Cummings said. “And it is fentanyl.”

Cummings added that there were no overdose deaths in August, but cautioned people in the audience from drawing too many conclusions from that information.

“While that is good news, one month does not make a trend,” Cummings said.

The projected figures put the northern Shenandoah Valley region in line with much of the rest of the nation, which has seen an increase in overdose deaths following fentanyl’s emergence into the heroin market. According to a provisional report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 64,000 people died from an overdose in 2016, up from around 53,000 people in 2015.

For the first time, the CDC attributed more overdose deaths to synthetic opioids like fentanyl than to any other class of opioid or any other drug.

But while those numbers paint a grim picture of the opioid epidemic in the region, members of the executive committee said that the coalition has largely been successful in its fight against the epidemic and against addiction problems in the area.

Tim Coyne, a public defender and a member of the coalition’s executive committee, said that the drug court, for instance, has been successful. Coyne said that 11 of the 17 people who have been in the drug treatment court have received employment during their participation in the court program.

“Four clients received housing assistance, who are now able to receive housing on their own,” Coyne added. “It’s been a very, very good investment.”

Coyne added that the drug court program has had setbacks; the drug court has forced four people to leave the program and one person died of an overdose. But Coyne described the overdose death as the kind of risk that comes with treating people who are addicted to opioids and said that the people who were forced out of the program nonetheless benefited from it.

“I personally talked to two of them that have been back to jail,” Coyne said. “And they are grateful with the treatment that they’ve received that they otherwise would not have had they not been in our program.”

Coyne added that while he believes the drug court has been effective, the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition needs to do more to care for inmates with substance abuse problems after they are released from jail.

“We’re still making efforts in that regard,” Coyne said.

Substance abuse is a major problem at regional jails in the area. The Rappahannock-Shenandoah-Warren Regional Jail, for instance, reported that 348 inmates in  June were known or suspected of having substance abuse disorders, according to a report by the jail.