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New data indicates record drug overdose deaths projected in Virginia

After a spike in deaths during the first half of the year, Virginia officials are projecting a record number of drug overdose fatalities in 2019.

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By Eric Everington

After a spike in deaths during the first half of the year, Virginia officials are projecting a record number of drug overdose fatalities in 2019.

Data released Friday by Virginia’s chief medical examiner shows a big increase in deaths between January and June from overdoses of methamphetamine, heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic prescription painkiller.

As a result, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner expects total drug fatalities in 2019 to approach 1,550 — a 4% jump from the previous year.

Fentanyl, which is more lethal than heroin and cocaine, is often combined with street drugs. “By late 2013 and early 2014, some heroin being sold on the street was actually completely fentanyl unbeknownst to the user,” the office said in its latest quarterly report. “Fentanyl caused or contributed to death in nearly 55% of all fatal overdoses in 2018.”

During the first half of 2019, Fairfax County and the city of Richmond had the most drug deaths in the state — 49. Most of Richmond’s overdoses involved heroin and fentanyl, which is often produced overseas and trafficked into the U.S.

“We saw drug overdoses and drug-related deaths really rise when we started to notice more and more fentanyl in toxicology reports in 2015,” said Capt. Emmett Williams of the Richmond Police Department. “The thing that is causing these overdoses is fentanyl being mixed with drugs like cocaine and heroin.”

Just a pinch of fentanyl can be deadly, Williams said. “About 35% of seized drugs in Richmond have trace amounts of fentanyl mixed in with it,” he said.

Authorities say one of the main ways fentanyl enters the U.S. is by street dealers ordering the drug on the internet’s “dark web” and having it delivered through the mail.

“We’re developing technology in package screening to detect fentanyl coming through the post office to combat the issue,” William said. “Fentanyl is also being shipped to Mexico and being trafficked across the border into the U.S. from there.”

In 2012, only 50 drug overdose deaths in Virginia involved fentanyl. That number jumped to 624 in 2016, 770 in 2017 and 813 last year.

Between Jan. 1 and June 30 of this year, the medical examiner said, 441 people died in Virginia from fentanyl overdoses. That compared with 371 such deaths during the first half of 2018.

The medical examiner projects that fentanyl will contribute to 883 deaths in the state in 2019.

Deaths involving heroin are expected to rise from 556 last year to 585 this year. And the medical examiner projects that fatalities involving methamphetamine will increase from 127 in 2018 to 152 this year.

Overall, the number of drug overdose fatalities in the commonwealth has gone from 799 in 2012 to a record high of 1,536 in 2017. The death toll dropped slightly to 1,485 last year. With the recent upswing in drug overdose deaths, the medical examiner’s office projects Virginia will hit a new record of 1,547 in 2019.

Kathrin Hobron, a forensic epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health, said a multifaceted approach is needed to address the problem.

Besides putting an emphasis on law enforcement, she said, there should be an emphasis on drug treatment. “Other than focusing on opioids or one drug, we should be focusing on the addiction of drugs and helping drug addicts get off drugs,” Hobron said.

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The Capital News Service is a flagship program of VCU’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture. In the program, journalism students cover news in Richmond and across Virginia and distribute their stories, photos, and other content to more than 100 newspapers, television and radio stations, and news websites.

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Downtown

McAuliffe crushes competitors in Democratic primary for governor

For anyone wondering how Terry McAuliffe was feeling before Virginia’s gubernatorial primary, his election-eve shimmying spree was a solid indicator.

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For anyone wondering how Terry McAuliffe was feeling before Virginia’s gubernatorial primary, his election-eve shimmying spree was a solid indicator.

The almost-victory dance became the real thing Tuesday as the former governor and prolific Democratic fundraiser cruised to a lopsided win in a split field, setting up a general-election matchup with deep-pocketed Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin.

Tuesday’s victory cements McAuliffe’s return to the forefront of Virginia politics after serving as governor from 2014 to 2018. He had to leave office due to Virginia’s ban on governors serving consecutive terms, but there was nothing stopping him running again after a brief hiatus in which he explored the idea of a presidential run or a potential post in President Joe Biden’s cabinet.

Though McAuliffe has said fellow Democrats encouraged him to return and help keep the state blue, a claim backed by his lengthy list of endorsements from senior members of the General Assembly, some have faulted him for taking the rare step of reasserting himself atop a party that was racking up electoral successes and policy wins in his absence.

That didn’t seem to be a tough question for the primary voters who showed up Tuesday and overwhelmingly chose McAuliffe over four other contenders. Former delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy and Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, both of whom had hoped to make history as the first Black woman elected governor of any state, were on pace to finish second and third, respectively. Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, his political aspirations hobbled by sexual assault allegations he denies, was in fourth place as of about 8:30 p.m., while Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, was in fifth.

In-person turnout appeared sluggish at polling places Tuesday, though it wasn’t immediately clear if that could be attributed to a lack of enthusiasm for an uncompetitive contest at the top of the ticket or the broader shift to mail-in ballots due to the pandemic and looser rules on absentee voting.

Two-thirds of the 2021 Democratic ticket will be a rerun of the party’s 2013 slate after Attorney General Mark Herring defeated challenger Jay Jones, a state delegate from Norfolk.

Del. Hala Ayala, D-Prince William, backed by establishment Democrats like Gov. Ralph Northam and Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, came out on top in the crowded primary for lieutenant governor, adding diversity to a ticket with two other slots filled by White men who have held statewide office before.

In interviews Tuesday about their picks for governor, some Democratic voters indicated they didn’t look much further than McAuliffe, deciding early that someone who did the job before could do it again.

“He was forthcoming. He was honest,” said Doreen Taylor, a self-described “60-plus” voter who cast her ballot for McAuliffe in Richmond’s Jackson Ward neighborhood. “He told people what needed to be done and he did it.”

Nick Walker, a 26-year-old craft brewer who saw his Virginia Beach brewpub shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, had a more specific McAuliffe story. He said he met the former governor at a beer event during McAuliffe’s first term and complained that the state’s arcane beer distribution rules were preventing small brewers from transporting their products throughout the state. Instead of getting brushed off, Walker said, McAuliffe connected him with a state official who could help.

“At that moment, he was just a guy who didn’t understand what was going on, but knew that something was wrong,” Walker said. “And instead of being like, ‘Oh we’ll fix it’ and then saying nothing, he delegated it to someone who knew how to fix it. And then we literally fixed that problem within the craft beer industry within a year. That doesn’t happen. And that was huge for me.”

While voting for McAuliffe at Petersburg’s 112-year-old train station, Carol Johnson said that, as a Black woman, she had considered supporting McClellan or Caroll Foy, both of whom have strong Petersburg ties. But she ultimately decided McAuliffe gives Democrats their best shot at victory this fall.

“I don’t think we have time to waste. I think we need somebody in there who knows how to get things done from the start,” Johnson said.

Darrell Mason, however, was all about getting “some new blood in there.”

“I voted for Jennifer … somebody,” he said, sliding down his mask to show a sly grin. Later, he said he voted for Carroll Foy.

“I know Terry McAuliffe; had my picture made with him. I like him and I know, hands down, that he’s going to win. It’s a sure thing,” Mason said. “I just want her (Carroll Foy) to get some votes to help her with her career.”

Other voters said they were frustrated by the way McAuliffe blocked the rise of other contenders who could have offered a fresher perspective.

Patty Loyde, a 51-year-old bookkeeper who voted for McClellan at a church in Richmond’s Fan District, said McAuliffe was “sucking all the air out of the room because he’s got so much money.”

“If Virginia allowed two terms and he won a second term, I wouldn’t have a problem with it,” Loyde said. “But he’s had his turn. And I just feel like it’s time for a Black person and a woman to be our governor.”

Martha Hoagland, a 23-year-old supply chain management major at Virginia Commonwealth University, said she voted for Carroll Foy because she was looking for the most progressive candidate with the broadest appeal.

“I just don’t want Terry McAuliffe to win,” she said. “Because I think he’s just kind of a corporate person.”

“He seems like a cool-enough guy,” said Kofi Roberts, a 23-year-old recent VCU graduate now working as a copywriting intern. “But it’s just like, what have you done since you’ve been governor that’s impacted me that I could point to?”

A McAuliffe win, he said, would feel “kind of like the Joe Biden presidency.”

“I wanted Bernie to win. Biden won. It’s not great. But it’s not terrible,” Roberts said. “Like the world still might burn. But at least in the meantime …”

“It’s not being lit on fire,” Hoagland said.

Mercury columnist Bob Lewis contributed reporting.

This has been a breaking news post. Check back for updates. 

Virginia Mercury is part of States Newsroom, a network of news outlets supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Virginia Mercury maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Robert Zullo for questions: [email protected] Follow Virginia Mercury on Facebook and Twitter.

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Downtown

Department of Public Utilities accepting new applications for CARES utility relief assistance

Funds are limited and applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis. Eligible customers are encouraged to apply immediately.

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On June 1, 2021, the City of Richmond Department of Public Utilities began accepting new applications from customers who have fallen behind on their utility bills due to economic hardship due to COVID-19.

The COVID-19 Municipal Utility Relief Program funding provided by the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act is being administered by the Virginia Department of Housing and Community Development and supports municipal utility relief efforts during the pandemic.

To be eligible for funding under this Relief Program, applicants must meet the following criteria:

  • Be a residential or non-residential customer of the City of Richmond Department of Public Utilities with active utility service;
  • Have experienced/been impacted by an economic hardship due to COVID-19;
  • Have fallen behind on their City water, wastewater, or natural gas utility* bill for services from March 1, 2020, through November 1, 2021;
  • Have not received any other forms of relief or financial assistance for their City utility services. However, previous CARES Act utility relief recipients are eligible to reapply within the extended service period defined above.

Funds are limited and applications will be processed on a first-come, first-served basis. Eligible customers are encouraged to apply immediately. More information, including the application, is available at www.rva.gov/public-utilities. Customers may also request an application via email to [email protected] or pick one up at any of the following locations:

  • City Hall | 900 E. Broad Street, Room 115
  • East District Initiative | 701 N. 25th Street
  • Southside Community Services Center | 4100 Hull Street
  • All Richmond Public Libraries

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Business

Governor Northam drops COVID restrictions as Virginia fully reopens

All capacity and gathering restrictions are now lifted as Virginia fully reopens. Businesses can still make their own rules about whether patrons must wear masks, however.

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Governor Ralph Northam today dropped all distancing and capacity restrictions, two weeks earlier than planned. Northam’s office says Virginia is able to take these steps as a result of “increasing vaccination rates, dramatically declining COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and statewide test positivity rate, and revised federal guidelines.”

“Virginians have been working hard, and we are seeing the results in our strong vaccine numbers and dramatically lowered case counts,” said Governor Northam. “That’s why we can safely move up the timeline for lifting mitigation measures in Virginia. I strongly urge any Virginian who is not yet vaccinated to do so—the vaccines are the best way to protect yourself and your community from COVID-19. The message is clear: vaccinations are how we put this pandemic in the rearview mirror and get back to being with the people we love and doing the things we have missed.”

The CDC guidelines state that fully-vaccinated individuals do not have to wear masks in most indoor settings, except on public transit, in health care facilities, and in congregate settings. Businesses retain the ability to require masks in their establishments. Employees who work in certain business sectors—including restaurants, retail, fitness, personal care, and entertainment—must continue to wear masks unless fully vaccinated, per CDC guidance. Those who are unvaccinated or not fully vaccinated are strongly encouraged to wear masks in all settings.

The state of emergency in Virginia will remain in place at least through June 30 to provide flexibility for local government and support ongoing COVID-19 vaccination efforts. Governor Northam will take executive action to ensure individuals have the option to wear masks up to and after that date. Masks will continue to be required in K-12 public schools, given low rates of vaccination among children.

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