Study: VCU Medical Center emergency room saw opioid overdose surge during pandemic

Study: VCU Medical Center emergency room saw opioid overdose surge during pandemic
Non-fatal opioid overdose visits to the VCU Medical Center emergency department in Richmond increased from 102 between March and June 2019 to 227 between March and June 2020. (Source: Live 5/File)

RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - According to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University, data showed an alarming surge in opioid-related overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Non-fatal opioid overdose visits to the VCU Medical Center emergency department in Richmond increased from 102 between March and June 2019 to 227 between March and June 2020.

That’s an increase of 123%.

The overdose increase occurred during a time when the emergency room was experiencing a lower-than-average number of visits overall.

March through June visits in 2020 were down 29% from the same time last year.

“Social isolation, job loss, the inaccessibility of community resources — these could all contribute to the overdoses we’re observing,” Taylor Ochalek, Ph.D., who works in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology at the VCU School of Medicine, said.

Ochalek also examined demographic information for the opioid overdose patients. For both years, the patients mostly were male (70% in 2019 and 73% in 2020), and nearly half were uninsured (40% in 2019 and 44% in 2020).

But the percentage of African-American patients increased: from 63% in 2019 to 80% in 2020.

VCU Health provides referrals to treatment resources, such as clinics, rehabilitation centers and clinical trials, that direct overdose patients into individualized care. A majority receive prescriptions for naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug.

“Hopefully this study can inform our hospital system of different ways they might be able to improve the treatment response in connecting individuals of life saving treatment,” explained Ochalek. “We want to make the community aware that we are seeing this huge surge in overdoses during the pandemic. Hopefully that can inform the public and inform people who might be struggling with addiction that there are services here in Richmond.”

Among the many places offering help to those fighting drug addiction is The McShin Foundation. President and co-founder John Shinholser says the organization has remained busy during the pandemic.

“We have been open every single day throughout COVID, we have made adjustments beautifully” he explained. “We still have a line at the door every day--we have a wait lists for our recovery residences. We still don’t have enough funding for the services people need when they ask for them.”

Shinholser says the recent study, as well as the continued fight against drug addiction should serve as a wake up call to policy makers.

“If we had had simple common sense policies--minimal amount of funding for the non governmental organizations that do the heavy lifting in the community at the engagement, level we would not have the impact we have right now," he said. “The best money that can be spent right now is going to be on authentic recovery support services.”

For those struggling with addiction Shinholser says there is help available. Mchsin offers several recovery program options.

“Yes, there is help available, it’s kind of hard to find sometimes. Persistence will pay off--there is hope. As long as you are alive you have a chance to do well,” he explained. “There’s a lot of us out there providing wonderful services and making a difference.”

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