Fatal overdoses outpace gun violence deaths in Richmond; feds warn of phony pills


RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Nearly nine times as many people died of a drug overdose in Richmond than from gun violence during the first quarter of 2021.

An alarming increase of fatal drug overdoses has swept across the Richmond metro area and within Virginia’s capital city, according to state health data.

While much attention from local leaders has been dedicated to combating rising gun violence, something Mayor Levar Stoney declared a “public health crisis,” drug overdoses are impacting even more families.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, 71 people died in Richmond from a drug overdose in the first quarter of 2021; 61 of those deaths were from fentanyl, according to the Virginia Department of Health.

During the same period, eight people were shot dead in the city and 45 people have been killed in shootings so far this year according to data from the Richmond Police Department.

Second-quarter data for overdoses has not yet been published by VDH.

A new ‘public safety alert’ from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration has placed a spotlight back on fentanyl, as the department reports an increase of phony pills on the black market.

The warning from the DEA Monday said “counterfeit” pills appear to look like prescription medications like OxyContin, Xanax and Adderall. However, the fakes can actually contain deadly amounts of fentanyl, and meth.

“It could look like any regular pill prescribed or over-the-counter pill that you can get from the pharmacy or a doctor, except for one thing, it has that fentanyl ingredient in it,” Richmond Police Captain Ronnie Armstead told 8News Wednesday.

Armstead said the department is currently investigating a handful of cases regarding laced pills in Richmond.

The DEA reports the fakes are even being sold on social media platforms. 

Though Armstead said Richmond police have less than 10 open investigations of these pills, fentanyl deaths are a major local problem — higher than ever. 

In Richmond, 189 people died from fentanyl last year; 80 died in Chesterfield, 61 died in Henrico, 28 died in Petersburg and 26 died in Hanover, according to the VDH data.

“Just a huge, substantial climb in overdose,” Richmond and Henrico Health Districts Opioid Coordinator Julie Karr said, adding that fentanyl overdoses don’t solely stem from painkillers.

“A person doesn’t have to be an opioid user to have an opioid overdose. We are seeing contamination of fentanyl in other drug supplies, more and more cases in cocaine and crack, more in methamphetamines,” she said.

Insurmountable pain is felt from these overdoses, but there is help. Addiction treatment specialists, counselors and more are available to assist those seeking recovery. Free test strips can detect if fentanyl is in a drug, as well as free NARCAN—resources that could be a lifesaver, and are available at most local health departments.

U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: Visit https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov or call 1-800-662-HELP. More resources for addiction recovery can be found here

In addition, National Prescription Drug Take Back Day is coming up on Saturday, October 23 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Local law enforcement agencies are asking people to turn over unwanted or unused prescription medications including pills. For more information, click here.

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