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Shenandoah Valley sees spike in drug addiction

Published: Jul. 15, 2021 at 6:41 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA COUNTY, Va. (WHSV) - Drug overdose deaths rose by almost 30 percent in the United States in 2020, making the total number the highest ever recorded in drug-related deaths.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the findings Wednesday, June 14. Officials say most of the deaths were related to opioid abuse. Opioids include fentanyl, heroin, prescription opioids and U-47799 (a synthetic opioid).

The Virginia Department of Health implemented REVIVE!, which is a program to provide training on how to recognize and respond to an opioid overdose emergency using naloxone. Naloxone is a prescription medicine that reverses opioid overdoses.

The Farley Center says fatal drug overdose has been the leading cause of unnatural death in Virginia since 2013. Opioids have been the cause of most of those deaths.

The CDC reported in November 2020 13 percent of Americans had started or increased substance use, including legal or illegal drugs, alcohol and prescriptions to cope with stress related to the pandemic. Officials say this is related to the recently-reported increase in deaths.

Dr. Adam Rochman, physician leader in the Emergency Department at Augusta Health, says he hasn’t seen a significant change in overdose deaths.

However, Natalie Broadnax, Gretchen McDaniel and Jennifer Brugh who work at opioid treatment centers in the Augusta County Area, say they’ve seen an increase in cases.

“We know that fentanyl is present in this community,” said Broadnax, the owner of Mid-Atlantic Recovery Center in Waynesboro. She said it’s important to know opioid abuse is a problem in the Shenandoah Valley.

“Things have become so much worse,” said Broadnax. She adds she wasn’t surprised to hear overdose deaths are up.

Jennifer Brugh, the Program Director at the Staunton Treatment Center, says she’s seen the same pattern.

“Overdoses aren’t something we have to see a lot, but I will say, we have had a couple of patients that have overdosed over the past year,” said Brugh.

Both say it’s not just an increase in deaths but in overall use. They said it can affect any person, family or community.

“It’s not just targeting one age group or one socioeconomic status,” said Broadnax.

They most often see fentanyl come up on drug screenings.

“The primary cause of [the increase], I think, is the increase in fentanyl,” said Brugh. Fentanyl is more common, she says, to find on the street or in a doctor’s office.

Usually, however, the patient doesn’t know they’ve consumed fentanyl.

“Somebody may say ‘here’s a Percocet,’ and it looks like a regular pharmaceutical. It’s a pressed pill,” said Broadnax.

Both say they’ve had to break the news to patients that they’d taken the drug because it’s usually laced in other drugs.

“We have had tears from patients because they’re trying to get better for their kids, and the thought that they didn’t know fentanyl was present is really distressing,” said Broadnax.

With deaths on the rise, many professionals are left asking why. The two treatment centers have seen several reasons.

“Higher rates of mental health issues during the pandemic for everybody, not just in the substance abuse population,” suggested Brugh.

“Unstructured time, plus social isolations” are two reasons, Broadnax suggested, that explain why many people fell into bad habits.

She says people who were in treatment weren’t able to see healthcare providers in person, which hurt their recovery as a result.

“Seeing somebody once every two weeks, once a month... for people who are so fragile, it’s not enough,” said Broadnax.

Although the pandemic did play a big role in the rise, it’s not the only reason. Broadnax says the problem facing many of her patience is financial.

“To know that money is a barrier for treatment is frustrating,” said Broadnax.

“We have a waitlist of patients who are not in treatment at all, and they cannot start treatment until they have Medicaid,” she said. Broadnax says she’s applied for her clinic to be covered with Medicaid, but she hasn’t heard back.

It’s been four months.

“Patients are paying out of pocket, and I’ve done everything I can to make this affordable because it’s necessary.”

Brugh suggests anyone struggling with addiction reach out to “Strength in Peers” in Harrisonburg. Brugh says they are a harm reduction group, which can provide fentanyl testing strips, HIV testing, peer counseling, needle exchange among other services.

They work with people who experience substance abuse, mental illness and trauma-related challenges.

You can also call SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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