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Overdose deaths skyrocket in Central Virginia

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Posted at 6:07 PM, Nov 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-11-18 18:07:31-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- For Dixie Lewis's 24-year-old sister Savannah, recovery meetings at the McShin Foundation were a lifeline.

"You need those people in the meetings. You need to hear what they have to say, it's like medicine," Lewis said.

But, when the pandemic hit, the meetings stopped.

Weeks later, on April 9, 2020, Savannah died from a drug overdose.

"It was fentanyl, heroin, morphine," Lewis said.

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Dixie Lewis

Dixie, a recovering addict herself, said her sister experimented with pain pills in high schools, then moved to heroin.

By her early 20s, Savannah sought out fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is much more powerful than heroin.

Savannah's death is among the 100,000 lives lost nationwide in a one-year period during the pandemic due to drug overdoses.

"She was very intelligent, she was artistic, she could draw, she was a tattoo artist," Lewis said about her sister.

Here in Virginia, data from the National Vital Statistic System shows overdose deaths rose more than 35 percent during the pandemic.

"The need did rise," Jesse Wysocki, Chief Operating Officer at the McShin Foundation, said. "When you take somebody that suffers from substance abuse disorder, addiction, when you take them away from their connection, people like them, isolation, it causes relapse and subsequently death."

McShin is just one of Central Virginia's recovery communities. Wysocki said the numbers reflect what he is seeing at McShin.

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Savannah Lewis

In Henrico, overdose deaths increased from 70 in February 2020, to 105 in February 2021.

In Chesterfield, they increased 97 in February 2020 to 118 in February 2021.

And, in Richmond, overdose deaths increased from 11 in February 2020 to 159 in the same month this year.

Wysocki said the widespread availability of fentanyl, and its use in other street drugs like Xanax and cocaine, and the pandemic, created a deadly cocktail that left tens of thousands of families with holes in their hearts.

"Some people can confuse it with heroin that's why they want it, they just don't realize how strong and how deadly it is," Wysocki said.

"Normally her birthday was always on Thanksgiving because everybody would get together," Lewis said. "It went from my favorite holiday to a very difficult holiday."

John Shinholser, the President of the McShin Foundation, said he is helping draft emergency legislation to try to hold dealers that peddle fentanyl in Virginia accountable.

He hopes the legislation will allow the court system to put dealers behind bars for up to 20 years if they sell fentanyl and someone dies from it.