The spike in fatal overdoses in the region, which reached a record high 53 last year, continues.
Seven people have died in the first 26 days of 2021 in the Lord Fairfax Health District, including two in Clarke County last week. That’s according to Joshua T. Price, a state police special agent and coordinator of the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force, which responds to all overdoses in the district. Besides Winchester, the district includes Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties.
Price said in a news release that six of the deaths have occurred since Jan. 20. He blamed the spike on increased use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin. It is typically mixed with heroin but also is increasingly being taken in pills.
Another contributor may be $600 payments that were part of the $900 billion Coronavirus Response And Relief Supplemental Appropriations Act, which Congress passed late last month. The payments were recently sent out.
The payments are credited with helping people during the COVID-19 pandemic, but drug treatment advocates said they’ve been abused by some drug users. In April, a spike in overdoses coincided with payments from the $2.3 trillion Coronavirus Relief And Economic Security (CARES) Act that Congress passed in March.
Since the region began to see the effects of the national opioid epidemic in 2013, there have been increased efforts to provide more treatment. However, demand has far exceeded supply, which is a national problem. One idea to expand treatment in Virginia is to make Big Pharma pay for it.
On Wednesday, the state Senate discussed a bill that would establish a state-run Opioid Abatement Authority. It would distribute money awarded to the state from pharmaceutical companies sued by the Virginia Attorney General’s Office for recklessly marketing or distributing opioids.
The office is one of many state attorney generals’ offices suing Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of Oxycontin. Frederick County and Winchester are among many communities around the nation suing Purdue Pharma and dozens of other drug makers and distributors to help pay for the costs of the epidemic.
Purdue Pharma is accused of aggressively marketing Oxycontin and downplaying how highly addictive it is. The state lawsuits are separate from the federal lawsuit that resulted in Purdue Pharma pleading guilty in November to misleading the government about the potency of Oxycontin and paying kickbacks to doctors who prescribed it.
The suit resulted in the company agreeing to pay about $3.5 billion in criminal fines and forfeit $2 billion in profits. But the government may not get most of the money because Purdue Pharma’s bankruptcy proceedings call for paying creditors first.
Besides Purdue Pharma, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring is also suing Teva, a fentanyl manufacturer. A news release from Herring’s office on Wednesday said holding pharmaceutical companies and drug distributors who helped “create, prolong and profit” from the epidemic is a top priority.