HENRICO, Va. (WRIC) — The 2020 pandemic is fueling Virginia’s drug epidemic. Fatal overdoses are skyrocketing across the state. Alarming numbers from the Virginia Department of Health prove that 2020 is the worst year on record for deaths involving drugs.
This year the Commonwealth has seen big spikes in fentanyl, cocaine, and methamphetamine. Kathrin Hobron, the Forensic Epidemiologist with the State Medical Examiner Office, says the trend is not regional, they are seeing drug overdoses soar all across the state.
“This is very concerning, I’m hoping that numbers will decrease once we get through this pandemic because it’s certainly a contributing factor,” Hobron said. “I am a big believer that social isolation is causing struggle. People are using drugs to cope.”
A Henrico County mother recently lost her son to addiction and shared her story with 8News in hopes of saving a life. Mary-Ellen Viglis says she and her son Demetrios, affectionately known as DJ, were best friends who shared everything; the good, bad and ugly.
“I don’t want people to forget him or forget other people that are struggling like him,” Viglis said crying. “They matter.”
On April 4, Viglis’ heart was shattered when she came home to find her 19-year-old son unresponsive in the bathroom suffering from a heroin overdose.
“My son mattered and he’s more than just a statistic,” Viglis said. “We need to do something to drive the statistics down.”
In two days, the grieving mother will be spending her first Christmas without her son, but holds on tight to a heartwrenching note he wrote days before he died. The note reads in part: “Mom, even when the world seems dark, you help show me there’s more. You are my rock. I will love you no matter what.
Viglis shared that addiction runs in her family and her son started using at 15 years old and battled depression. She saidshe never enabled him, but just loved him in every possible way. DJ graduated and was interested in becoming a chef, working at a local restaurant to perfect his cooking skills.
“It was hard to watch, but he was brutally honest with me so I knew when he was struggling,” said Viglis.
She went on to say that DJ was struggling with the COVID-19 lockdown, sharing that the extreme social isolation, anxiety of the unknown and recovery meeting restrictions pushed her son over the edge.
Overdose numbers have been trending up over the past several years in Virginia. According to the latest VDH report, there were 1,626 deaths in 2019 and in 2020 the number is projected at 2,053 fatal overdoses. Hobron, wrote the report, and says that number is likely an underestimate and it’s clear drugs are being used to cope.
The Quarter 2 report was released in October, the Quarter 3 report will be released at the end of January, and the Quarter 4 report will be complete in April. Hobron says this is because toxicology reports often take three months to process.
David Rook, founder and President of True Recovery RVA, provides support services for those suffering from addiction. Rook told 8News his organization has 187 beds for those in need and all of them are occupied, which doesn’t happen. He says they are normally at 85% this time of year.
“Overdoses are through the roof,” Rook said. “These people need the support and need the connection. We’re not able to provide the support we need to provide.”
Under Governor Northam’s new COVID-19 restrictions, people must gather in groups of 10 or less. Once announced, Rook wrote a letter to the Governor’s Office inquiring if recovery meetings falls under social gathering and if they’re allowed to hold a meeting with more than 10 people.
Rook says he received a response from the Secretary of Health and Human Resources who said recovery meetings must still convene with ten people or less, which Rook calls “damaging.”
“Generally, we have anywhere from 75 to 120 people a meeting,” he said. “So if you were to break that up into 10 and try to create enough meetings for folks to participate in–that’s an impossible task.”
Rook is pushing the state to increase the capacity-limit for recovery meetings from ten to at least twenty-five people. Both he and Viglis are advocates for the addiction community and agree that online and limited in-person meetings further feed isolation, which has proved to be deadly.