VCU emergency room sees increase in opioid overdoses patients

VCU emergency room sees increase in opioid overdoses patients
Researchers reported a 123% increase in non-fatal opioid overdoses at the emergency room between March and June 2019 to the same period this year. (Source: Capital News Service)

RICHMOND, Va. (CNS) - The pandemic could be driving an increase in opioid overdoses, according to recently published data and insights from people who work in a local treatment center.

Virginia Commonwealth University has released a new study that shows a surge in patients at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond who were admitted due to opioid overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Researchers reported a 123% increase in non-fatal opioid overdoses at the emergency room between March and June 2019 to the same period this year. The research has been published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Taylor Ochalek, Ph.D., a postdoctoral research fellow at the VCU C. Kenneth and Dianne Wright Center for Clinical and Translational Research, was the lead author of the study. She said researchers have been collecting data on opioid overdoses since last year, but they recently decided to examine overdose trends to see if the pandemic was impacting overdoses.

“Social isolation, increased psychiatric symptoms, decreased access to non-medical care and the stress that might come from unemployment could increase the risk of relapse to opioid use and then potential overdose,” Ochalek said.

The study’s authors found that Black patients were among the largest demographic associated with overdoses during the pandemic in the hospital they tracked. In March and June of 2019, 63% of opioid overdose patients were Black. In March and June 2020 the number increased to 80%. The authors noted that the findings were a small sample of patients and may not be generalizable to other locations.

The McShin Foundation, a Henrico County-based drug recovery organization, has seen an increase of people coming in for treatment during the pandemic. The organization provides 11 recovery houses and 122 beds for participants.

“With a pandemic and an epidemic going on at once, It was important for us to have a safe place for those that needed help,” said Honesty Liller, the organization’s CEO.

The McShin Foundation started a podcast called Get in The Herd as a creative way to reach out once 12-step meetings were canceled because of the pandemic. The podcast offers discussion on addiction, recovery, stigma and advocacy.

The McShin Foundation also felt it was important to develop a recovery plan for participants who received stimulus checks and unemployment benefits, Liller said. The goal is to provide individuals in recovery with resources to manage finances during the pandemic. Some individuals made more money while on unemployment benefits than when they were working, according to a May report by NPR. 

“If you’re someone using and you don’t have any money every day, and you struggle to get $20 and then you’re getting $800 a week? I mean, yeah, it’s rough around here,” Liller said.

The Virginia Department of Health publishes quarterly reports on drug-related deaths. According to the report, fentanyl caused or contributed to death in almost 60% of fatal overdoses in 2019. That same year, almost 80% of all fatal overdoses of any substance were due to one or more opioids.

Overall, the number of fatal drug overdoses has increased annually since 2013, VDH reports. Opioids have been the leading force behind the increases in fatal overdoses since that year.

The most recent report from the health department shows 355 fatal opioid overdoses in the first three months of the year. That includes fentanyl, heroin and prescription opioids, and is an 8.6% increase from the same reporting period last year.

VDH didn’t publish data for the second quarter of the year due to the pandemic. The organization plans to publish overdose data ranging from July to September on Oct.15, according to the health department.

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