Pandemic triggers ‘enormous’ spike in drug overdose deaths

Pandemic triggers ‘enormous’ spike in drug overdose deaths
The Richmond-based McShin Foundation’s White Marker Project memorializes Virginians who have died because of drug addiction. (Source: Photo courtesy of John Shinholser)

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, fatal drug overdoses have exploded in Virginia, and health officials are predicting “the worst year on record by far” for such deaths in the commonwealth.

From January through June, at least 1,086 Virginians died from overdoses of fentanyl, heroin, cocaine, prescription opioids and other drugs, the state medical examiner has found. That represented a 39 percent increase from the first half of 2019.

Deaths rose especially during the second quarter of this year (April through June), shortly after Virginia mandated social distancing and other measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. The state registered at least 634 drug fatalities during those three months — 67 percent more than during the corresponding period in 2019.

Kathrin “Rosie” Hobron, the Virginia Department of Health’s statewide forensic epidemiologist, called the second-quarter spike “absolutely shocking.”

The statistics “suggest an enormous increase in fatal overdoses since the beginning of the COVID-19 national shutdown … and indicated that 2020 may be the worst year on record by far for fatal overdoses in Virginia,” according to a report Hobron compiled for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Experts attributed the increase to social isolation, job losses and other fallout from the coronavirus pandemic.

“I do think it’s a combination of those things,” said Dr. Taylor Ochalek, a research scientist at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.

“Social isolation can obviously increase feelings of depression and other mental health symptoms. So people are feeling really alone during this time. That might put them at a higher risk of relapsing. They don’t have their normal social support.”

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.