Tainted heroin in Frederick County and Winchester appears to be contributing to a spike in area overdoses.
Through Saturday, 38 people have fatally overdosed in the Lord Fairfax Health District in 2020, compared to 27 in all of 2019, according to Special Agent Joshua T. Price, a state police officer and coordinator of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force. The task force covers the district, which includes Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
The spike is part of a sharp increase in overdoses since the coronavirus pandemic began causing shutdowns and quarantining in March. The virus has made it harder for drug users to receive in-patient treatment and group therapy, and drug treatment advocates say some users spent their stimulus checks on drugs.
There have been at least six non-fatal overdoses in the last week in Frederick County, including three on Friday, which the Sheriff’s Office attributed to the tainted heroin. All six received an overdose reversal drug. At least two non-fatal overdoses in Winchester may also be related to the tainted heroin.
Price said in an email on Sunday that there have been 120 non-fatal overdoses through Saturday in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, compared to 80 at this time last year. There were 22 deaths at this time last year. At the current rate, the number of fatal overdoses in 2020 is on pace to exceed a record 40 deaths recorded in the region in 2017.
In a news release on Saturday, Lt. Warren W. Gosnell, Sheriff’s Office spokesman, urged people who know heroin users to check on them. He said to call 911 immediately if the person appears to be overdosing.
“Time is of the essence in getting an overdose victim the help they need and can be the difference in their survival,” he said. “We hope you will help us save a life and agree that we can all work on trying to get these victims the assistance they need to get past their addictions.”
Virginia’s “Safe Reporting Law,” which took effect July 1, was designed to encourage people to call 911 about overdoses by reducing fears of being prosecuted. The law says no one who “in good faith” seeks medical attention for themselves or others experiencing overdoses will be arrested for purchasing, possessing or using the drugs involved in the overdose.
However, Lauren Cummings, Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition executive director, said at the coalition’s meeting on Thursday that the law has had unintended consequences. She said some people at overdose scenes are less cooperative with police, and some people who have overdosed are more reluctant to be hospitalized.
“The first call is 911,” she said. “The right call is to go to the hospital.”
Cummings added that victims who go to the hospital often receive referrals to drug treatment. To try to reduce overdoses, Cummings said the Law Enforcement Overdose Intervention Program, in which police try to encourage overdose victims to get treatment, is now accepting probationers who relapsed and are ineligible for the Northwest Regional Adult Drug Treatment Court. The intervention program has 12 clients, according to Haley Brockway, an intervention team member.
Cummings said the coalition is trying to be better prepared to deal with more overdoses due to an anticipated second wave of COVID-19 cases.
“I welcome ideas on what the coalition can do to help support our community and the population we serve,” she said. “Please reach out to me. I want to do everything we can to be better prepared.”
Cummings can be reached at 540-536-5000 or email@example.com.