State Health Commissioner Marissa J. Levine today declared Virginia’s opioid addiction crisis a public health emergency and issued an order allowing anyone to walk into a pharmacy and buy a drug that treats overdoses without a prescription.
The state is grappling with a crisis that has gripped the nation; the number of overdose deaths in Virginia averages three daily and hospital admissions continue to spike, Levine said in announcing her decision to escalate the administration’s response.
“The consequences of opioid addiction in Virginia have risen to unprecedented levels and can now be classified as an epidemic,” Levine said.
The emergency declaration comes days after U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy released a landmark report declaring drug and alcohol abuse among the nation’s most pressing health crises on equal footing with AIDS and cancer.
It also comes as increasing numbers of Virginia families prepare for a Thanksgiving meal that a loved one won’t be around to enjoy, state officials noted.
More than 1,250 people in Virginia will likely die of a drug overdose this year, according to projections from the state health department. Drug overdoses surpassed car crashes as the leading cause of unnatural deaths in 2013, and the numbers have only increased, thanks in large part to a surge in opioid abuse. Young adults are the hardest-hit group, a Richmond Times-Dispatch analysis found.
People ages 25 to 44 accounted for more than half of all drug-related deaths between 2007 and 2014 – in large part casualties of the intersection between genetic predisposition to substance abuse and the widespread availability of prescription painkillers, treatment experts say.
“Too many Virginia families have lost someone to opioid addiction,” Levine stated. “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.”
Addressing an issue that affects about one in seven Americans over the course of their lives is “a moral test” for the country, Murthy concluded in the federal report; Only one in 10 of those with substance abuse issues receives treatment, his office found.
Virginia’s overdose death rate has historically trailed those of neighboring states such as Kentucky and West Virginia, “but it’s been increasing in recent years, with recent increases particularly driven by rises in overdose deaths involving heroin and/or illicitly manufactured fentanyl,” said Daniel Raymond, policy director of the Harm Reduction Coalition.
The decision to declare a state of emergency is not unprecedented, but unusual, said Raymond, who advocated for Virginia policymakers to go a step further and establish a safe needle exchange program.
“The public health emergency declaration and statewide standing order is a good move by Virginia to expand access to naloxone and try to reverse overdose mortality trends,” Raymond said. “Syringe exchange programs are highly effective at overdose prevention … the lack of legal programs in Virginia makes it challenging to reach those at high risk.”
State officials last year enacted measures to expand substance abuse treatment but wait lists at the community services boards that serve as the local point of entry for Virginia’s public system of mental health remain lengthy in many places.
“Obviously, there’s an enormous amount of work that needs to be done – especially for (those without insurance),” said Dr. Jack Barber, interim head of the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
Anything policy makers can do to boost access to comprehensive care that includes counseling and, when needed, medication-assisted treatment, would move the needle in the right direction, said professor Warren Bickel, director of the Addiction Recovery Research Center at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute.