Drug overdose deaths topped 100,000 within a year for the first time on record, according to a recent report from the CDC, leading health officials to stress the importance of access to treatment for addiction and substance use and warn of the rise of fentanyl, a leading factor driving overdose deaths.
The figure represents an alarming increase in overdoses and marks a setback in efforts to combat the opioid epidemic. Overdose deaths increased nearly 29 percent nationally between April 2019 and the same time in 2020, according to the report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. Overdose deaths in Virginia in that same period increased to slightly above average by about 36 percent.
Synthetic opioids now make up a large majority of overdose deaths – nearly 73 percent, according to the CDC. Of opioid overdoses, 59 percent involve fentanyl as of 2017. Data from the Fairfax County Health Department indicates that opioids are the number one cause of unnatural deaths. Fentanyl use is also associated with most opioid overdose cases: of 94 opioid overdose deaths in 2020, 87 involved fentanyl.
The proportion of overdose deaths that involve opioids has slightly increased in Fairfax County, and non-fatal opioid overdoses have risen as well. There were 163 non-fatal opioid overdoses in Fairfax during the first two quarters of this year, compared to 123 in the same time frame last year, driven in part by increased use of fentanyl.
A powerful painkiller similar to morphine, though 50 to 100 times more potent, fentanyl has recently proliferated in the illicit drug trade. Due to its potency, it can be mixed with other drugs and is often a cheaper and more easily obtainable alternative. More than half of overdose deaths nationally now involve fentanyl used in combination with another drug, underscoring the dangers created by fentanyl’s increasingly widespread use.
Health officials stress that several factors contribute to the population-level rise in overdose deaths. Health Department Spokesperson Lucy Caldwell wrote in an email that the increase in opioid overdoses “can be attributed to individual, policy, and environmental causes, all exacerbated by the increased availability of fentanyl and its analogues.”
Many illicit drugs become contaminated with stronger opioids like fentanyl, Caldwell wrote, and users of other opioids eventually build a tolerance, leading them to seek out stronger alternatives. Additionally, the pandemic created new pressures or intensified existing ones, prompting some people to begin self-medicating.
Health officials emphasize that properly treating conditions like addiction that contribute to overdose deaths requires a wide-ranging response. “Vulnerability to drug addiction includes several factors such as genetics, environmental, and repeated exposure,” Caldwell wrote. “Addiction is rarely attributed to just one factor. It is important to consider that various factors that may work together to contribute to addiction including isolation, mental health, lack of a support system or drug treatment.”
In Fairfax County, the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board offers a range of programs that address underlying causes of addiction, such as outpatient care, peer support, residential detoxification, and other programs. The CSB also coordinates with the Fairfax County Police Department to refer individuals to detoxification or treatment programs in lieu of an arrest. FCPD officers and first responders additionally carry naloxone, a powerful medication that can treat overdoses by counteracting opioids currently in a person’s system.
CSB now offers training for how to respond to overdoses, such as by administering naloxone. Due to the increasing number of overdose deaths associated with fentanyl, CSB also provides fentanyl testing strips, which can determine if a drug is cut with fentanyl.
Local nonprofits such as the Chris Atwood Foundation partner with organizations like the health department to offer community services to treat substance use issues. Ginny Atwood Lovitt, executive director of the foundation, wrote in an email that addiction being a “death sentence” is a common misconception.“People can and do recover,” she wrote, observing that “23 million Americans are living in long-term recovery.” She noted that stigma often stands in the way of seeking treatment. “This disease is treated differently than other diseases. The science doesn’t back that up.”
She added that it is crucial for those at risk of an overdose to be connected with long-term care. “Emergency departments routinely discharge people after an overdose or some other medical emergency that is clearly a result of their substance use disorder and don’t provide them with any resources, follow-ups, [or] linkage to care,” she wrote. “We have to stop failing people at these most basic and critical intersections because for some people that’s the one chance we will get to help them before it’s too late.”
With the holiday season underway, what’s often viewed as a time for close friends and family to come together can also heighten social isolation for others. If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can contact the CSB or the Peer Outreach Response Team for assistance. The Heads Up and Talk it Out program and the virtual parent support group hosted by the Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court also offer support for adolescents struggling with addiction and other challenges. In the event of an overdose emergency, dial 911.