Year In Review: The opioid epidemic: The number of deaths set record for region in 2017

Lauren Cummings

The opioid epidemic was worse in 2017 than in any previous year.

According to the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, as of Dec. 20, 38 people had died of an overdose.

That’s a record for the region. Previously, there was not a single year in which more than 33 people had died in the region with an overdose.

Meanwhile, the drug epidemic in the state appears to be getting worse, based on preliminary and incomplete data from the Virginia Department of Health. In October, the Virginia Department of Health projected that around 1,500 people would die of an overdose in 2018, higher than last year’s record-number 1,428 overdose deaths. The Department of Health’s data only includes the first half of 2017.

The additional deaths have come because of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that has recently entered the market. Fentanyl deaths more than tripled in the state between 2015 and 2016, according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

That pattern appears to have carried over to this region. Lauren Cummings, executive director for the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition, said that most of the overdose deaths this year have come because of fentanyl.

“Typically when we have seen an increase — you know, a spike in overdoses — our labs have come back positive for fentanyl,” Cummings told the Northern Virginia Daily after a spike of 11 reported overdoses and two overdose deaths in November.

“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 in a July interview. “What we noticed, along with the increase in deaths and nonfatal overdoses, is an increase in the crimes attributable to addiction.”

Drug trafficking rings have been identified in the area and law enforcement with the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force have assisted in statewide and federal investigations aiming to tackle the problem. Fourteen people from area counties and Baltimore were federally indicted in June in a heroin distribution scheme in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

In October, deputies with the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office arrested 10 people during an investigation that led to the largest heroin seizure in the county’s history. Law enforcement found 100 grams of heroin that three men allegedly bought in Baltimore and brought to a Woodstock motel room. The three men’s cases are still pending in district and circuit courts. The 100 grams of heroin had an estimated street value of $13,000.

Locally, property crimes like larceny, fraud, embezzlement and burglary are on the rise because of the opioid epidemic from people trying to support their addiction.

Still, even with the staggering statistics, officials 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 the main focus of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition was the heroin problem.

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

While the number of overdose deaths has continued to rise, there are some signs of changes. Doctors have been prescribing fewer opioids than they had in the past, according to a September report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And more money has been coming to combat the opioid epidemic. In June, the Northwestern Community Services Board received a $400,000 grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the federal Health and Human Services.

The Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition received a $500,000 data-sharing grant from the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, aimed at helping law enforcement officials to find networks of drug dealers.

The drug court in Winchester also had its first graduation in 2017, with four members making it through the yearlong program. The program is set to expand, as the City of Winchester’s grant application stated that the court would serve 56 participants over a three-year period.

Drug courts have become a fairly popular way for localities to provide recovery services to people with histories of substance abuse problems. In November, President Trump’s Opioid Commission recommended in its final report that every federal district establish a drug court. (Twenty-seven of the 93 federal districts had done so by 2015, according to the report.)

Authorities continue to monitor widespread narcotic uses in six-year patterns, Cummings said in a July interview, because after that a new or different drug becomes more popular among substance abusers. She said that with 2017 being the sixth year of opioids, the next drug on the rise, which authorities have already seen a resurgence of, is cocaine. Meaning, it is very likely that cocaine will be the next drug to see a spike in users.