FRONT ROYAL – With four months remaining in 2020, the number of annual opioid overdoses in Front Royal has significantly increased compared to last year, according to Police Chief Kahle Magalis. He said there have been 47 overdoses and 10 deaths in 2020 compared to 24 overdoses and four deaths in 2019.
“We’re outpacing last year already,” he reported to the Town Council on Monday night.
In county limits, 2019 saw 12 overdoses and four deaths compared to 13 overdoses and three deaths so far in 2020. Regarding the disparity between the number of overdoses in the town and county, Magalis noted that someone in a remote county location tends “to be more prepared” with the overdose reversal drug naloxone “on hand.”
The issues, he said, are not unique to Front Royal.
“It’s nationwide. We’re not special. This is occurring all over the country now,” he said.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Magalis noted stimulus checks and unemployment benefits created more disposable income. He added that non-violent offenders were released from jail and some sentences were deferred due to the virus. While the matters cannot be definitively linked, he said there was a surge in overdoses coinciding with the pandemic’s timeline.
Within the last year, Magalis noted that there has been a significant shift from heroin overdoses to the more potent Fentanyl. He added that there has been an uptick in juvenile opioid usage, whereas kids in the past were more commonly caught with marijuana. Recently, a female juvenile died from an opioid overdose.
Magalis noted that the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug Task Force has also recently investigated a few cases “with juvenile involvement in harder drugs.” He said the town cannot rely on the task force “to solve all of our opioid problems.” The task force, he explained, aims to “to target mid-level and higher-level drug dealers and not drug users.” He noted via telephone Wednesday that “you can’t police addiction” and the “root causes” of the issue cannot be solved by law enforcement.
“This isn’t simply a law enforcement problem, it’s a community problem and at the root of much of it is mental health,” he said. “We’re kind of there for the drug dealers and prevention through enforcement…unfortunately, the law enforcement piece is somewhat reactive."
Magalis noted that the Warren Coalition recently secured a $1 million grant to focus on the opioid issue and coalition Executive Director Christa Shifflett is seeking assistance from Valley Health, social services, schools, Northwestern Community Services and other community stakeholders to determine how to best tackle the issue.
Interim Town Manager Matt Tederick said the county should take a “significant lead” in battling the issue as it has the most relevant resources. He suggested the formation of a committee consisting of various relevant members to examine the issue, adding “this is a community problem and I think it’s going to take a community help drop these cases down."
Magalis also noted that recently amended drug laws present challenges. For example, he said no one at the scene of an overdose can be charged with a crime if they have illegal narcotics.
“About half the people that we deal with like that just turn around and walk back in the house," he said.
Some of those people, he said, have later been provided naloxone.
Last year, he explained that 49 naloxone doses were administered locally compared to 50 this year.
Magalis added that while incarceration is certainly not the answer for addiction, “every once in a while you can get somebody that will take advantage of a program that they’ve been court-ordered to do” or someone in jail will enter counseling to overcome addiction.
The Town Council put the matter on the agenda for discussion after attorney David Downes raised the issue during several meetings, asking: "How many people have to die before something is done?"