HAMPTON ROADS, Va. - There has been a disturbing number of deadly overdoses in Hampton Roads throughout the past year.
News 3 has been digging into this issue and learned more about the troubling trend.
Experts told News 3 the COVID-19 pandemic has taken the spotlight away from other societal issues like substance abuse.
New data from the Virginia Medical Examiner’s Office shows that there has been an explosion of deaths during the pandemic due to drug overdoses.
“Overdoses and drug abuse have just skyrocketed since COVID-19. It's actually alarming; shocking numbers,” said Carolyn Weems, a local activist and member of the Virginia Beach School Board. She lost her daughter to drugs seven years ago.
The Medical Examiner’s Office reports that in 2019, there were 339 people who died from a substance overdose in Hampton Roads. In 2020, we are on track to have a total of 513 deaths.
The numbers are still preliminary as they wait for certain reports to come back.
Some of the more deadly months when it came to overdose deaths included May and July. In May 2019, there were 29 overdose deaths, and in 2020 there were 70 deaths. In July 2019, there were 22 overdose deaths, and in 2020 there were 50.
Virginia Beach Psych Center CEO Kurt Hooks serves on the Hampton Roads Opioid Working Group along with Weems.
“These aren't just numbers - these are our neighbors, and these are people's lives, and it feels sometimes a little bit helpless, in a sense,” said Hooks.
Experts said back in 2018, the community was making headway with the opioid addiction problem and the number of deaths were coming down.
“It was the first time in almost a decade that numbers had actually lowered for a year, and then last year when COVID hit, it's almost like the perfect storm,” said Weems. “I think COVID is actually the national relapse trigger.”
Officials with the CDC said the stresses of the pandemic and the social isolation resulting from social distancing measures may take an especially great toll on people trying to achieve or stay in recovery.
“It's going to be shocking, the numbers of people that we lose,” said Weems.
People like Bobbi Jo Reed are fighting to save lives. She said at 12 years old, she started using substances, was trafficked, was homeless and spent 22 years of her life in the torments of addiction.
“I really became an 'it.' Society didn't even see me anymore,” said Reed. “What I experienced was really brutal and I went really far down the scale and I should have been dead 100 times over.”
Today, she said she is 25 years sober and operates 13 recovery homes and 30 apartments for families in recovery in the Kansas City area. There was a new documentary released about her life.
“I thought I was going to help 10 women and now there's been over 10,000, so I am the most blessed woman in the world because I get to do exactly what God created me [to do],” said Reed.
She is helping people along with many others like Weems, who started a nonprofit called Caitlyn’s Halo, named after her daughter. Weems is currently raising her late daughter’s child. She works in the schools and in the community to help change this ongoing - and now growing - problem.
“This disease is not a singular issue. It’s a family disease, and this year, our goal is to offer 11 scholarships for post-high school education for those in an environment that have to deal with it,” said Weems.
Diana Mitchell lost her daughter to drugs a few years ago and is also working to make change in the community.
She said it was difficult for her 17-year-old daughter Brooke to get help because she was a minor.
Mitchell said she was met with resistance when she tried to speak about her daughter’s drug problem at school. She said many people do not want to believe that this is happening to so many young people in our community.
“If you have things in your medicine cabinet... if your kids don't know what they are, you can believe their friends do,” said Mitchell.
“Stay social with your teenagers or young adults and to make sure that they're not left alone, because isolation and a calendar with nothing on it is the worst thing for an addiction,” said Weems. “Nothing to do, no purpose, no friends - that’s absolutely the worst thing.”