Virginia Consumer Healthcare Alliance

Join today and support quality, consumer centered healthcare in Virginia.

From the Alliance

Opioid crisis in Virginia is real, deadly

This story originally appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier. 

Three days before Thanksgiving, Virginia Health Commissioner Marissa Levine proclaimed a public health emergency: She officially declared opioid addiction a “crisis,” which brings a host of public resources to the battle against this increasingly deadly foe.

It’s a crisis Lt. Jon Wilks of the Bedford County Sheriff’s Office has seen up close far too often in his law enforcement job. He spoke earlier this week at a regular meeting of the Central Virginia Opioid Epidemic Coalition about how the crisis has affected crime rates locally and across the nation.

First, a primer. Opioids are closely related chemically to such pain-relieving drugs as morphine, heroin and others derived from the opium poppy known as “opiates.” But opioids are synthetically produced in the lab, and their pain-relieving qualities are significantly enhanced relative to natural opiates.

Both opiates and opioids are extremely addictive, which is why the federal government has such stringent rules governing their use. But opioids take both the pain-relieving and addiction aspects to another level entirely from opiates.

Without close medical supervision, it’s extremely easy for someone prescribed either opiates or opioids to become addicted. The human body quickly acclimates to the drug dosage, requiring larger and larger dosages to obtain the desired medical result. Addicts, either those prescribed the drug or those who obtain it through other means, keep trying to get the same high, but more of the deadly drug is needed each time.

That’s when the danger comes in. Levine, the state health commissioner, said that three Virginians, on average, die each day from opioid overdoses while more than two dozen people are seen in hospital emergency departments daily in the throes of an overdose.

It was the overdose death of a 16-year-old teen that Bedford’s Wilks can’t get out of his mind. The Forest teen was found dead on the bathroom floor of his home after he’d taken a fentanyl patch from his grandmother and chewed it in a desperate attempt to get high. (The narcotic fentanyl is supposed to be delivered in measured doses through patches worn on the skin.)

So far this year in Virginia, overdoses are tracking to claim 1,260 lives. To put that in perspective, that’s 265 more deaths than in 2014, which was the first time heroin and opioid overdose deaths surpassed the number of highway fatalities in the state. That is how serious this epidemic is.

One of the most important actions triggered by Levine’s declaration of an opioid crisis is making the drug Naloxone available to anyone without a prescription. Naloxone, when administered to a person who’s OD’d, reverses the lethal trajectory of the overdose. Officials recommend anyone suffering from addiction or with a friend or loved one who’s addicted keep Naloxone nearby, as it’s a proven lifesaver.

Opioid addiction, as Wilks notes, is both a medical and law enforcement issue. Addicts suffering from addiction are ill, but the overriding urge for the next high often drives them to commit criminal acts to obtain the drug. And prescribers with loose pens and pharmacies who blindly fill prescriptions compound the challenge for law enforcement.

Sadly, the crisis is likely to get worse before it gets better as it will take time to bring all the needed resources to the fight. This isn’t a battle that will be easily won: Opioid addiction has many roots, but the lives of everyday folks hang in the balance.

This story originally appeared in the Bristol Herald Courier.