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Richmond sees record opioid overdose deaths amid the pandemic

Richmond sees record opioid overdose deaths amid the pandemic
Posted at 10:18 PM, Jul 15, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-19 09:59:37-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- Following a record high year in 2019 for fatal opioid overdoses in Richmond, health officials said that number doubled in 2020.

Julie Karr, the Opioid Coordinator for the Richmond City and Henrico Health Districts, said the number of overdose deaths had been climbing since 2014, with higher rates in Richmond than in other parts of the state. But in 2020, those numbers skyrocketed.

“We saw twice as many of our community members, our loved ones, our neighbors, die of a fatal opioid overdose in 2020 than we did in 2019,” said Karr.

In 2019, there was a record 113 fatal opioid deaths in the city, according to Karr. In 2020, that number climbed to 203. Karr said the highest surge was right around the time restrictions kicked in in the spring.

She said so far, the city was on track to see another year of high overdose rates.

“We are on track to be closer to our 2020 numbers than our 2019 numbers, to be sure,” Karr said.

First responders with the Richmond Ambulance Authority were seeing that firsthand.

“We are seeing overdoses every day here. It’s in my 12-hour shift, in a given day, we’ll see between two and six. And that’s just for the daytime,” said Lt. Danielle Geronimo. “It’s concerning for sure. You know, these are serious calls. We go to patients not breathing and not responsive to family, friends, and bystanders.”

A report from the Richmond Ambulance Authority showed so far in 2021, the RAA had administered Narcan to 584 suspected overdose patients, a seven percent increase from the same time in 2020.

“When someone’s not breathing for an extended period of time, eventually their heart stops beating. So, it’s important to call right away when you notice something’s not right,” Geronimo said. “We’re here to help is the most important thing.”

The Richmond Ambulance Authority worked with other city agencies to do more than just treat the patients.

Courtney Nunnally works as a Peer Support Specialist with the Richmond Health District and is partnering with Richmond Ambulance, Police, and Fire in a program called ‘First Responders for Recovery.’

Nunnally knows what addiction is like.

“I got into treatment, December 30th of 2012. So, it’ll be nine years this year,” said Nunnally.

She said she got hooked on opioids after being prescribed them by her doctor following a car crash she was in. She said that eventually led her to heroin.

“It’s a horrible dependence and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” Nunnally said. “I became addicted, got into a lot of legal trouble, and met an officer that helped me find recovery a little over eight years ago.”

Through the ‘First Responders for Recovery’ program, Nunnally was connecting to those overdose patients who signed a waiver and was working to offer them support and resources.

“If I had a dollar for every time someone told me to ‘just stop,’ I’d be rich. So adding someone who can say, ‘I know how you feel because I’ve been there, done that', means a lot for people who are trying to get help. It meant a lot to me,” Nunnally said.

Nunnally said they’d been able to get multiple people into treatment through the program.

“There is support and we’re here to make a difference,” Nunnally said.

The Richmond and Henrico Health Districts planned to dispense Narcan and provide training for administering the drug every Tuesday at the health districts in August. A prescription is not needed for the life-saving medicine that can treat an opioid overdose.

Karr said they’d continued to see a rise of Fentanyl contamination in other drugs and said the health districts were making Fentanyl testing strips available to people as well.