Northern Shenandoah Valley records spike in opioid overdoses during COVID-19 pandemic

Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, authorities are urging those who know someone who is battling addiction to make sure they get the overdose-reversal drug.
Published: Aug. 28, 2020 at 10:17 AM EDT|Updated: Aug. 28, 2020 at 10:15 PM EDT
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HARRISONBURG, Va. (WHSV) — Across the country and in the Northern Shenandoah Valley, opioid overdoses are on the rise.

The director of the Lord Fairfax Health District, Colin Greene, said the COVID-19 pandemic is partly to blame.

“It’s really kind of an unhappy time in the country right now,” he said. “You might expect that would lead to an increase in so-called diseases of sadness or diseases of despair of which addiction would be one.”

At this time last year, the region recorded 22 opioid overdose deaths and 80 nonfatal opioid overdoses.

“We have seen about a 70 percent increase in the number of overdose deaths,” said Greene.

So far in 2020, the Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force has confirmed 38 opioid overdose deaths and 123 nonfatal opioid overdoses in the Northern Shenandoah Valley.

“What we’re experiencing is the merging of a national pandemic and the epidemic of the addiction crisis,” said Lauren Cummings, executive director of the Northern Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition.

Typically, Cummings said the region sees a spike in overdoses after-tax returns are sent out because people have extra money in their pockets. However, she said this year, stimulus checks meant to keep families afloat provided the funding to sink users deeper into their dependency.

Cummings said the pandemic also brought on increased anxiety and has forced people into isolation.

“The opposite of addiction is connection and when you are forcing people to isolate, it is actually exasperating their addiction,” said Cummings.

According to Cummings, vital face-to-face connections are the lifeline for those struggling with substance abuse.

“There’s a level of accountability that occurs when you go to a meeting because it’s not just your sponsor or your friends that are going to be there and ask you how you’re doing but it’s other people who see you week after week, or day after day, that say ‘hey, how are you’ and they know if you’re not telling the truth,” Cummings said.

As the pandemic drags on, health officials advise that it’s still safer at home, except when it isn’t.

“We’re hearing from some of our clients that it’s just not the same to have therapy to be done over a virtual setting,” Cummings said. “They just don’t feel again that connection that they need, that so many of them thrive on.”

Until there is a vaccine for COVID-19, authorities are urging those who know someone who is battling addiction to make sure they get the overdose-reversal drug.

Naloxone is a safe and easy way to save lives. The drug typically comes in a nasal spray, sold under the brand name Narcan. When used, it quickly halts the effects of opioids, awaking someone from an overdosed state and giving them a chance to get to the hospital for further treatment.

At 20 years old, Cady Schaffer found herself struggling with opioid addiction after the sudden, devastating loss of her father and older brother.

“Narcan is... it saved my life, bottom line. If it wasn’t for that, I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today,” said Schaffer.

In 2018, Schaffer overdosed in a bar after taking drugs in the bathroom. Fortunately, a bartender working that night was also an EMT who was able to perform CPR on Schaffer until paramedics arrived.

Schaffer said it was the Narcan that brought her back and gave her a second chance. She knows others who weren’t so fortunate.

“My boyfriend that I started using with back when my dad passed away with the pain pills, he passed away July 18 of an overdose and nobody was there, so he didn’t make it,” said Schaffer. “And that breaks my heart because I know that if somebody was there and they had Narcan, he might be alive today.”

On average, the Shenandoah County Sheriff’s Office says its deputies administer Narcan on the job about once a month.

Narcan is available for free at all health departments throughout the Valley and training to use it only takes about 10 minutes. However, in the time of COVID-19, officials recommend calling the department before visiting to pick it up.

Greene said that even if Narcan is used on someone who is not experiencing an overdose, it will not harm them.

“Think of it like CPR,” said Greene. “If you have a spouse or a family member with chronic heart disease, you’d be very wise to learn CPR, learn how to work an automated external defibrillator (AED). You have a loved one who has an addiction problem, particularly opioids, you should have naloxone on hand and know how to use it. "

According to Greene, the effects of the naloxone do wear off after about 45 minutes, so it is critical that after administering the drug, the person who overdosed must go to a hospital for medical assistance.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, help is out there. Here is a list of local resources:

If you’re interested in getting trained to administer Narcan, you can contact these local health departments:

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