Winchester — Area overdoses and calls to suicide prevention hotlines have soared since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-10th, was told during an online meeting with local drug treatment and mental health providers on Tuesday.
Through May 20, the latest date statistics were available, there have been 25 fatal overdoses and 68 non-fatal overdoses in the Lord Fairfax Health District since the start of the year, according to Lauren Cummings, Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition executive director. The district encompasses Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
Through the same time last year, there were 16 deaths and 48 deaths. That means fatal overdose deaths are up 56% and non-fatal overdoses nearly 79% in 2020. At the current rate, fatal and non-fatal overdoses will far exceed the 29 deaths and 149 fatalities last year.
Cummings said fatal overdoses in the region are up 86% since March 1, which was 10 days before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Cummings characterized the spike as a collision of a health and opioid crisis. She said the virus has exacerbated isolation, a lack of housing and unemployment, which are relapse triggers.
“We are reminded that addiction is a chronic, relapsing brain disease and the importance of connection for managing that disease,” Cummings said.
Many drug users self-medicate because of mental illness and some seek help by calling the Concern Hotline. The hotline, created in 1968, fields about 5,500 calls annually. Volunteers specialize in compassionate listening, crisis and suicide intervention, and making referrals to drug and mental health treatment providers.
Rusty Holland, hotline executive director, said daily calls increased about 50% in March. Besides regular callers, Holland said there were more calls from first-time callers suffering depression because of the isolation brought on by Virginia’s stay-at-home order designed to reduce infections and deaths from the coronavirus. In addition, more calls came from parents of substance abusers and from suicidal people.
Holland said it’s been more difficult to train volunteers for suicide intervention because the company the hotline relies on stopped doing training because of the virus. “We’re not able to train new community volunteers to be suicide interventionists, which we feel is decreasing the safety of our community,” he said.
Fatal overdoses and suicides due to increased isolation and Great Depression-like unemployment rates are classified as “deaths of despair.” A study released May 8 by the Robert Graham Center and Well Being Trust estimated between 27,000 and 154,000 such deaths nationally, depending on the length and severity of the pandemic.
Wexton said Congress is trying to help reduce the problem. The approximately $2.3 trillion coronavirus rescue law passed in March, known as the CARES Act, includes $425 million for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, a branch of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Wexton said about $250 million will go to community behavioral health clinics and $50 million for suicide prevention.
“The country is in the midst of an unprecedented health crisis and economic crisis,” she said. “As a result, many people are suffering new, striking rates of depression, anxiety and fear.”
Wexton said additional money is in the Heroes Act, a $3 trillion stimulus bill passed in the Democratic-majority House of Representatives on May 15. However, the cost of the bill is opposed by Republicans in the Republican-majority Senate and President Trump has called it “dead on arrival” in the Senate.