Virginia health officials projecting first decrease in overdose deaths since before the pandemic

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New data on fatal drug overdoses in Virginia suggests this year could be the first time there’s been a decrease in deaths since 2018.

The Virginia Department of Health recorded 642 fatal drug overdoses in the first quarter of this year compared with 688 in the first quarter of 2021. The first quarter of 2018 showed a decrease of 51 deaths to 346 compared with 2017, and that year went on to show an overall drop in deaths from the prior year.

Even fatal fentanyl overdoses are projected to decrease for the first time since 2011, though still not back to pre-pandemic levels. Fatal overdoses resulting from all opioids are also expected to decrease this year.

Fentanyl has been the driving force of the opioid epidemic since 2020 when the drug began to flood over the border at an unprecedented rate.

The 642 figure for the first three months of 2022 is subject to change, and is more likely in the 650-655 range, according to Rosie Hobron, the statewide forensic epidemiologist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and the author of the VDH report.

Hobron explained that shape of the projection for 2022 was based on the observed data for the first quarter of this year and the prior four quarters. The total overdose deaths decreased for each quarter of 2021.

“It looks like it’s potentially flat-lined or drifted down a little bit over the last couple quarters so that’s kind of why it appears that we’re probably going to have a flat or slight decline in the total number of overdose deaths for 2022,” she said.

Fatal cocaine and methamphetamine overdoses, the vast majority of which are caused due to mixed with fentanyl, have slowed but still are projected to increase for the year, according to VDH.

Fatal cocaine overdoses had been on a downward trend since they reached an all-time peak of 219 in the second quarter of 2021, but jumped above that in the first quarter of this year to 221. Fatal methamphetamine overdoses peaked at 151 in the third quarter of 2021 and, after a brief drop, missed that peak by just six deaths in the first quarter of 2022.

“People don’t routinely die of (cocaine and meth), not like fentanyl,” Hobron said. “When you’re mixing them, that’s really where the problem comes.”

The updated report shows the lowest quarterly total of fatal benzodiazepine overdoses — of which Alprazolam causes the most — since the fourth quarter of 2019, when there were 41.

Gavin Stone, gavin.stone@virginiamedia.com