Virginia’s fatal overdoses dropped slightly in first three quarters of 2022

Published: Feb. 13, 2023 at 3:38 PM EST
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - People have been dying from drug overdoses in our country at record levels. 2020 and 2021 saw some of the highest numbers of fatal overdoses ever recorded.

The number of people dying in Virginia from fatal overdoses consequently saw a sharp increase at the outset of the pandemic. And 2021 recorded a 15 percent increase in fatalities compared with 2020, mirroring nationwide trends.

So how did we fare in 2022?

To learn more, we consulted Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which releases quarterly reports on the Commonwealth’s fatal overdoses.

“I analyze toxicology results, as well as the certified cause of death to generate the report that you see,” said Rosie Hobrin.

Hobrin is the statewide forensic epidemiologist within the Office who compiles the reports. So far, she only has data from the first three quarters of 2022. But it gives pause for hope.

“It does appear that we may actually have a slight decrease from 2021,” she said.

The most recent report, released at the end of January, shows us a slight drop in each of the first three quarters of the year, compared with 2021.

Still, Hobrin says Virginia’s overdose projected overdose for 2022 deaths are extremely high at more than 2,500.

In just nine months, the fatal overdoses exceed the fatalities logged for an entire year a decade ago.

Today illicit fentanyl is blamed for the vast majority of deaths.

“Three quarters, over three quarters of deaths, or overdose deaths are attributed to fentanyl,” said Hubris. “Out in the western part of the state, it’s actually the number of fentanyl deaths, the rates of fentanyl deaths are actually a little bit lower than the state average, which is pretty interesting. Central Virginia actually has the highest rate in the state.”

Hobrin said the most notable trend in the Western part of Virginia is the rate of deaths attributed to methamphetamine involved overdoses.

“In 2021, almost three times higher than the state average of methamphetamine involved overdose deaths. And that’s, you know, not what we really see in other parts of the state,” she explained.

Most fatal overdoses are seen in Virginians aged 25 to 44. And for a long time, they were mostly white males. But that changed in 2019.

“Black males actually surpassed that and became the highest rate on the drug overdose in Virginia,” Hobrin pointed out. “And it’s just soared even higher. 2020-2021, Black males continue to kind of grow at a larger magnitude than any other group.”

Hobrin said the data show illicit drug distributors are making fentanyl-laced pills that look indistinguishable from a pharmaceutically made drug.

“And then the problem with that, too, is there’s not really a homogeneous mixture of the drugs. So you can have a batch of pills, and one pill can have a lethal dose, and another pill from the same batch have almost nothing. So it’s really concerning for people that are, you know, getting pills, you know, off the streets.”

Meanwhile toxicologists at the state are working to keep up with new, previously unseen substances - sometimes leaning on private labs to help them determine which drugs took a life.

By April, we should have a more comprehensive look at the year as a whole, and perhaps, hopefully see more of that downward trend.

Throughout the week, we’ll be looking at responses to the crisis through harm reduction, a statewide grant for Peet specialist training, clinical bridge programs, and a new mentorship program for Virginia’s Department of Health.