RICHMOND – Following a recent landmark report by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy which equated drug and alcohol addiction with other public health crises, including smoking and AIDS, Governor Terry McAuliffe declared the Virginia opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency. A public health emergency is an event, either natural or manmade, that creates a health risk to the public and the administration feels there is a current threat to Virginia communities and the economy.
McAuliffe said the declaration came from the State Health Commissioner Marissa J. Levine, in response to the growing number of overdoses attributed to opioid use.
In 2014, for the first time in Virginia, more people died from opioid overdoses than fatal car accidents.
Dr. Levine said that on average, three Virginians die from drug overdose and more than two dozen are being seen in emergency departments every day due to drug overdose.
The number of emergency visits for heroin this year increased 89% in the first nine months compared to 2015. Levine added that fatal opioid overdoses are expected to increase by 77% compared to five years ago.
There were 4,036 deaths in the Commonwealth related to prescription opioid overdoses, from 2007-2015, according to the Virginia Hospital and Healthcare Association. Those numbers are part of a larger epidemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control, who said that 61 percent of U.S. drug overdose deaths in 2014 involved some type of opioid and resulted in 28,647 deaths.
State officials also expressed concern over evidence that Carfentanil, the highly dangerous synthetic opioid used to sedate large animals such as elephants, is being sold in Virginia, mainly in the Tidewater region.
Dr. Levine said Carfentanil is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.
“Too many families across Virginia and the nation are dealing with heartbreak and loss as a result of prescription opioid and heroin abuse epidemic,” said Governor McAuliffe. “That is why I support Dr. Levine’s decision to declare a public health emergency, to heighten awareness of this issue, provide a framework for further actions to fight it, and to save Virginians’ lives.”
Standing order makes life-saving drug available without prescription
Dr. Levine has issued a standing order that allows all Virginians to obtain the drug Naloxone, which can be used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations.
The price will remain high, officials said, but “broadens our ability to get life-saving medication into Virginians’ hands.”
Officials also encouraged families to “take stock of their health and well-being” this Thanksgiving.
“Too many Virginia families have lost someone to opioid addiction,” Levine said. “These actions today will not diminish their loss, but we owe it to them and each other to work together, watch out for each other and continue to combat the seriousness of this crisis.”
Health officials also said that though it is difficult to know what to do when someone close to you is facing addiction, but there are simple things every Virginian can do to help those around them:
- Know the signs of addiction and substance use: Signs of recent opioid use include pinpoint pupils, sleepiness, “nodding” and scratching. Common signs of addiction include constant money problems; arrests; track marks and infections from needle use; lying about drug use; irritability and, when drugs can’t be obtained, physical withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, dilated pupils, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
- Talk to your loved ones: If you suspect that your friend or family member is struggling with addiction and substance use, talk with them. The state’s new website VaAware (http://vaaware.com/treatment-recovery/) offers resources on how to best discuss addiction with someone you love.
- Properly dispose of medications: If you have unused, expired or unwanted medications and need a way to safely dispose of them, you can now get a drug disposal bag from your Local Health Department. The bags allow for you to safely deactivate and dispose of medications in the privacy of your own home. Additionally, you may return unwanted prescription drugs for destruction to one of the authorized pharmacies listed at dhp.virginia.gov/pharmacy/destructionsites.asp. Some local law enforcement agencies also collect and destroy unwanted drugs.
- Obtain Naloxone: If someone in your life is struggling with opioid addiction, visit your local pharmacist to obtain Naloxone and keep it on hand for possible overdose emergencies. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an overdose that is caused by an opioid drug (i.e. prescription pain medication or heroin). When administered during an overdose, naloxone blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing within two to eight minutes. Naloxone has been used safely by medical professionals for more than 40 years and has only one function: to reverse the effects of opioids on the brain and respiratory system in order to prevent death. Family members and friends can access this medication by obtaining a prescription from their family doctor or by visiting a participating pharmacy that can dispense the drug using the standing order issued by Dr. Levine. More information on Naloxone can be found at getnaloxonenow.org.