HAMPTON ROADS, Va. (WAVY) – Opioids continue to be a major public health crisis in Virginia, but evidence of progress is beginning to emerge, especially in Hampton Roads.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Carolyn Weems of Virginia Beach. Now an advocate for parents and addiction education, she lost her 21-year-old daughter Caitlyn to heroin five years ago.
Statewide, the number of opioid overdose deaths increased 8 percent last year, from 1,138 to 1,227. In other words, an average of more than three Virginians each day. Attorney General Mark Herring says he has made the opioid crisis a top priority of his administration. “The numbers are still really, really large.
Weems puts the opioid data in context. “We have more deaths now than car accidents. We have more deaths than guns. Opioids kill more than breast cancer.”
But the numbers here in Hampton Roads are more encouraging when it comes to people dying from opioids. While Portsmouth and Suffolk had increases from 2016 to 2017, the rest of the seven cities all saw their numbers decline. They ranged from 15% in both Virginia Beach and Chesapeake to a 35% drop in Hampton.
Overall our region had 17% fewer deaths in the latest data.
One possible reason for the improvement is more widespread use of Narcan, the overdose reversal drug.
“It is literally saving lives every single day,” Herring said.
Area police departments are carrying Narcan in addition to firefighters and paramedics. But you don’t have to be a first responder to use Narcan to save a life.
Archie Boone, Jr. the coordinator for the Partnership for Success for the City of Norfolk can train anyone to use Narcan.
“They’re coming in with the interest to save a life. They want to be empowered.”
Dr. Ben Fickenscher, an emergency room doctor at Chesapeake Regional Medical Center, says Narcan training make sense. “Roommates and friends and loved ones who are aware of an addiction problem, they have Naloxone ready, and I think we’re seeing lives saved because of that.”
Fentanyl, on average 50 times more deadly than heroin, continues to be a major problem locally and nationwide.
A major fentanyl supplier to Hampton Roads is now serving life in a federal prison. Kenneth “Bones” Stuart of New Jersey ran an operation that smuggled fentanyl into our region aboard buses inside stuffed animals.
“That case is just one example of how we will continue to be aggressive in going after dealers and traffickers,” Herring said.
Addiction often begins with prescriptions, and Fickenscher says people are getting smarter about the pills they are prescribed.
“I’m asked much more frequently now by parents and by patients about the addictive properties of opiates.”
People are asking Weems those questions, too. The FBI has recognized her with a national award for her outreach. She estimates she has spoken to 25 groups about opioid addiction in the past twelve months.
Five years after her daughter’s death, she’s starting to sense she’s having an influence.
“I get phone calls and messages and emails, and just people I see in the grocery store and the say Carolyn, I saw your video or I heard you talk.”
The Virginia General Assembly has passed a law that enables every public school to put an opioid curriculum in place. The law cites the one already is use in Virginia Beach Schools as a model.
How are opioids affecting your hometown? Here’s the latest Virginia data broken down by city and county.