RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — As the opioid epidemic continued to spiral out of control, fentanyl took a record number of lives in overdoses across Virginia.
In a quarterly report published by the Virginia Department of Health (VDH), drug overdoses remain the leading cause of unnatural death in Virginia — more than gun-related and motor vehicle-related deaths combined.
Drug overdoses have been the leading cause of unnatural death in the Commonwealth since 2013 but the trend has only continued to worsen as illicit opioids have continued to grow in popularity.
Of these opioids, fentanyl has proven to be the overwhelmingly most fatal. In 2021, fentanyl killed 2038 people in Virginia alone.
According to the VDH, fentanyl caused or contributed to death in 76.4% of all fatal overdoses in 2021.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is approximately 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
The drug is inexpensive, widely available, highly addictive — and potentially lethal, according to the DEA. International drug traffickers are increasingly importing illicitly manufactured fentanyl into the United States. This substance is then regularly mixed with other illicit drugs—in powder and pill form—to drive addiction and create repeat customers. Many fentanyl poisoning victims are unaware that fentanyl is in the substance they are ingesting.
In Virginia, the overwhelming majority of fatal fentanyl overdoses come from products that are illicitly produced. This trend began statewide in 2015 and has only continued to grow in greater magnitude since.
The first quarter of 2022 resulted in 483 fatal fentanyl overdoses, according to the VDH. This is a slight decrease from the year before which resulted in 515 deaths in the first quarter. However, a similar first quarter dip occurred in 2018 only for the deaths to continue to climb throughout the year.
According to the data, the highest rate of fatal fentanyl overdoses is concentrated in the areas of Richmond and Petersburg. In 2007, the City of Richmond had zero fatal Fentanyl overdoses, in 2021 there were 232. That is 99.9 fatal fentanyl overdoses per 100,000 people for the entire population of the city.
In Petersburg, that number is even higher — 118.2 fatal fentanyl overdoses per 100,000 people in the city’s total population. That’s over 0.001% of the city’s entire population killed by fentanyl overdose in just one year.
Sunday, Aug. 21, was National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day, in which a number of agencies reminded the public of the dangers of fentanyl.
Unfortunately, agencies are becoming increasingly powerless as the opioid epidemic grows further out of control. 8News spoke with Statewide Forensic Epidemiologist, Kathrin “Rosie” Hobron, MPH, who explained some of the actions being taken to try and reduce the rate of fatal overdoses.
“There has been a big push for fentanyl testing,” Hobron said. Richmond City Health District (RHHD) has been offering free fentanyl test strips during in-person naloxone training and other community dispensing events.
“Widespread availability of Narcan [aka Naloxone] can also help,” Hobron added. RHHD has also introduced weekly virtual Naloxone training sessions, taking place every Tuesday and Thursday.
“Fentanyl is the single deadliest drug threat our nation has ever encountered,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram in a release on Friday, Aug. 19. “From large cities to rural America, no community is safe from the presence of fentanyl.”