Virginia had another record year for fatal drug overdoses in 2020. In 2019, Virginia had a record 1,627 fatal drug overdoses, but in 2020 that number spiked by 41.2 percent to 2,297, fueled by fentanyl overdoses, according to a fourth-quarter report from the Virginia Department of Health (VDH).
“The pandemic exacerbated drug deaths and last I checked, something like 40-plus states reported big increases in overdose deaths since the pandemic began,” VDH Statewide Forensic Epidemiologist Kathrin Hobron told The Virginia Star.
“I think people working in behavioral health would have a better answer as to why there was such an increase once the lock down began, but my personal opinion is it has something to do with stress, isolation, unemployment, fear, and other factors,” she said. “We heard a lot of talk about people that were previously sober, started using again during the pandemic. Then you hear rumors about people using stimulus checks to buy drugs. It’s just been a really rough year for a lot of people.”
“2019 was already a record setting year with the largest number of overdose deaths ever seen at that time,” Hobron said. “The big emphasis in 2020 is the increase in fentanyl involved overdose deaths with 72 percent of all overdose deaths involving fentanyl.”
Charts in the VDH report show that in the first quarter of 2020, fatal drug overdoses were at 453, already higher than all previous years through 2007. In the same quarter in 2019 fatal drug overdoses were at 399. But in the second quarter of 2020, that number spiked to 647, while in 2019, second quarter fatal drug overdoses were at 380. That pattern continued into the third quarter of 2020 with 623 fatal overdoses compared to 389 in 2019. There were 574 fatal drug overdoses in the fourth quarter of 2020, up from 459 in 2019.
Those numbers include all kinds of death: accident, homicide, suicide, and undetermined.
“The vast majority of fatal overdoses are ruled accidents,” Hobron said. “On average, about 120 drug deaths per year are suicides. In 2020, 125 were ruled a suicide (5.4 percent).”
Mental Health America of Virginia Executive Director Bruce Cruser said the increase is caused by a “Combination of the impacts from forced isolation, grief and loss due to the pandemic, presence of fentanyl and other increased toxicity and potency of drugs.”
McShin Foundation President John Shinholser said, “Absolutely, COVID-19 has been a big cause of the increase and the spike in not just opiate problems, but the fentanyl is way out of control.”
“Human beings, their nature is they like to get high, but then fentanyl makes it very dangerous. That’s a big problem with the deaths,” Shinholser said.
Shinholser said boredom during the shutdowns also contributed to more drug use, and more first-time users. Shinholser said around five percent of people that try alcohol or drugs will become addicted. As a result, Shinholser expects to see ripple effects from 2020 for years. He described a 20-year ripple effect.
“This ain’t going nowhere. These kids are going to keep dying,” he said. “There’s a downstream ripple effect that takes a couple of decades to clean up, and then oxycontin — Purdue Pharma, they’re the ones that created the current opiate crisis.”
Shinholser said that chemicals to manufacture fentanyl are being shipped from China to Mexico, and the finished product flows to the U.S.
“According to U.S. estimates, synthetic opioids, including predominantly foreign–sourced fentanyl and fentanyl–related compounds (analogues), killed more Americans in the past 12 months than any other type of opioid,” states a January report from the Congressional Research Service.
According to the report, in a December 2020 hearing the U.S. Customs and Border Protection said that although fentanyl production has shifted to countries like India and Mexico, China is still a “major source country” for manufacturing equipment and controlled substances.
Shinholser said government should introduce policy like giving resources to recovery communities and other non-governmental organizations. He said the government needs to find a way to put pressure on China and stop the flow of drugs from Mexico. Instead of cracking down on street-corner dealers, government should go after “the head of the snake,” like drug executives, Shinholser said.
“Congress is getting ready to let them off the hook,” he said. “Look how pharma controls Washington.”
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