RICHMOND, Va. -- Lockdowns and isolation during the pandemic lead to a record-setting year in overdose deaths nationally, according to experts. The CDC reported the highest single-year increase of drug overdose year-to-year in more than 50 years.
Virginia saw a larger percentage increase in overdose deaths than the national average, per CDC data. In 2019, 1,545 deaths were reported, and in 2020 during the pandemic, 2,187 deaths were reported. That accounts for a 41% increase year to year.
Recovery experts and emergency medical personnel were not shocked by the numbers, given what they had seen on the ground. The key moving forward, local experts agreed, is easier access to recovery resources.
The sweet smile of Justin Woods’ six-year-old daughter, Kinsley, was a main driver for him to seek treatment for his addiction. Woods, who is now a program manager at Caritas in Richmond, has been sober for five years now.
“Pretty much the center of my being is that little girl,” he said. “I don’t think, one, I’d be sober if it wasn’t for her, and I don’t think I’d be alive right now if it wasn’t for her.”
After being on both sides of recovery, Woods said it was heart-wrenching to learn of these numbers and consider the thousands of family members behind them.
“When you remove resources from someone, and everything is shut down and you’re left to your own devices, and you sit there and all you can do is sit at home. For people like us, our mind and our head is a dangerous place,” he said.
Dr. Brandon Wills, an emergency room physician at VCU Health who also works with substance abuse patients, said their system saw a steady stream of overdose patients in 2020.
“It was about a doubling at least at what we see at VCU,” he said.
There has been a cultural shift in emergency medicine and the medical field, according to Dr. Wills, toward connecting overdose patients with recovery resources as soon as possible, instead of just treating them medically.
“One in ten of those patients will be dead within the year. It truly is an emergency, so getting patients connected with treatment services is really our challenge right now,” Dr. Wills said.
VCU Health is actively working to connect overdose patients with their recovery clinics, via immediate appointments and telehealth visits.
You can learn more about the bridge between the system’s ER response and long-term addiction services here.
Woods said working at Caritas and helping those who have the same disease provides a unique opportunity to share his story with those who can relate.
“When you’re stuck in that cycle, it’s not an enjoyable state of being at all,” he said. “Hopefully, I’m that beacon of hope that they need. This is where he came from, and this is where he’s at. Life is better than I ever imagined.”
Woods asked families of those struggling through the early days of addiction to not give up on their loved one. The first big step is seeing when they are ready to seek help and making that move.
“If I see someone suffering from a heart attack or cancer, I wouldn’t hesitate to go help them. [Addiction] is the same thing. It’s a disease,” Woods said. “They are a person, they’re people, and they deserve dignity and respect like anyone else.
You can learn more about The Healing Place at Caritas here or by calling 804-358-0964.