Fatal Overdoses and Emergency Calls Rise in Virginia, Highlighting Impact of COVID-19 on Substance Abuse


Fatal drug overdoses and non-alcohol overdose calls have increased in Virginia since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown, highlighting a troubling trend and fallout from the deadly virus.

“[COVID-19] has undoubtedly increased the overdoses as well as overdose death as well as relapse for those who were in recovery from addictions,” John Shinholser, president and co-founder of the McShin Foundation, said in an interview with The Virgina Star

The data backs up Shinholser’s assertion.

Compared to 2019, non-alcohol related overdose calls in the Richmond metro area have risen nearly 65 percent, 735 to 1,209, and 42 percent statewide, 4,60g to 6,543, in the first half of 2020, according to numbers Richmond community recovery advocate Michael McDermott compiled and sent to The Star.

In Richmond city specifically, non-alcohol related overdose calls nearly doubled from 289 to 574 during that time, representing an increase of roughly 98 percent.

McDermott maintains that the number of overdose deaths was already increasing in previous years before COVID as part of the larger, ongoing opioid epidemic, while also acknowledging the uptick created by the Coronavirus.

The monthly breakdown of fatal drug overdoses in Virginia, mostly from opioids, also confirms the increase of substance abuse stemming from COVID-19.

In April of 2019 there were 126 fatal drug overdoses and 137 in May. In April of 2020 there were 207 fatal drug overdoses and 237 in may, according to the numbers provided to The Star by Kathrin Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist for the Virginia Department of Health. 

However, these are preliminary numbers. There are many pending deaths associated to homicide, suicide as well as other fatal drug overdoses that do not count toward the totals to date.

Those numbers symbolize the struggles and challenges drug addicts and those in recovery have had to face while trying to better themselves during quarantine or in isolation.

“One of the main components to recovery is actual social connection,” Shinholser said. “One of the best weapons against the disease of addiction is another recovering addict, and when you take a new [addict] away from that recovered person, you just diminish their chances at recovering by 50 percent.”

Shinholser mentioned the positive impact that telehealth and telemedicine can have on recovering addicts in quarantine, but shared the reality that there is real substitute for face-to-face treatment.

When asked if drug addiction and overdoses has been somewhat forgotten since COVID-19 spiked back in march, Shinholser offered a bleak response.

“It has [become forgotten], except for the moms and dads and loved ones who constantly are burying their children,” Shinholser said. 

When Hobron was asked the same question, she offered a different answer commenting on Virginia’s larger drug problem.

“I think that COVID-19 is the headlines [right now], but drug deaths here in Virginia are definitely not tapering off like we saw in 2018, they have increased dramatically and we’re at record setting statistics right now,” Hobron said.

From 2013 to 2020 fatal drug overdoses have accounted for more deaths in Virginia than gun and motor vehicle related deaths, according to the Virginia Department of Health fatal drug overdose quarterly report for the first quarter of 2020.

Fatal drug overdoses have accounted for over 15,000 deaths in Virginia since 2007, according to the report.

The opioid epidemic in Virginia is certainly not over and the numbers show that COVID-19, the related shutdown and subsequent quarantining has made an issue that was once front and center in the national spotlight even worse.

New information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) raises questions on whether the scale of the national shutdowns was as necessary as people once believed back in March.

Of the deaths that occurred in America from February first to August 22nd, COVID-19 was the only cause mentioned in six percent of the deaths. For deaths with other causes in addition to COVID-19, there were 2.6 additional causes or conditions per death on average, including influenza, pneumonia and diabetes, according to the CDC.

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Jacob Taylor is a reporter at The Virginia Star and the Star News Network. Follow Jacob on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected].






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