Opioid Addiction Declared a Public Health Emergency in Virginia

The state's health commissioner announced Monday that the opioid addiction crisis is an official public health emergency in Virginia and created a standing order that anyone can obtain a rescue drug at pharmacies to treat overdoses.
by | November 23, 2016 AT 1:45 PM

By Elizabeth Simpson

The state's health commissioner announced Monday that the opioid addiction crisis is an official public health emergency in Virginia and created a standing order that anyone can obtain a rescue drug at pharmacies to treat overdoses.

State Health Commissioner Marissa Levine announced at a news conference that the drug naloxone, which can be used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergencies, can now be obtained at pharmacies without a prescription or any explanation as to why it is needed.

This declaration comes in response to the growing number of overdoses attributed to opioid use, and evidence that carfentanil, a highly dangerous synthetic opioid, has made its way into Virginia.

Levine said a case involving carfentanil has been identified in the Tidewater region that includes Hampton Roads, a first-time discovery in the state. She said the synthetic drug is 10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl.

"They don't know the potency of what they are injecting, so we are concerned about more overdose deaths," Levine said.

She said the Department of Forensic Science identified the presence of the drug earlier this month for the first time in the state.

Caroline Juran, executive director of the Virginia Board of Pharmacy, also said that synthetic chemicals are being identified by pharmacists and being placed on a list that would prompt legal scrutiny.

Levine said that as families come together for Thanksgiving, they should educate themselves on signs of addiction and overdose and make sure they have naloxone on hand if a family member is a risk.

She said this would be true not just for people who have addiction problems, but those who have legal opioid prescriptions who could be at risk of accidental overdose.

Some pharmacies, such as CVS, were already selling naloxone without a prescription so families and friends could rescue people from overdoses.

Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam also held a news conference at Children's Hospital of The King's Daughters in Norfolk Monday, saying the public health emergency will raise awareness of the issue and will relay the message that people need to obtain naloxone if they or a friend or relative is at risk for drug overdose.

He said the rescue drug costs about $70 and is often covered by insurance. It comes in a nasal preparation and a self-injected form.

"They don't need any excuse or explanation, they just need to say they need naloxone and this will cut through the red tape," said Northam, a pediatric neurologist at CHKD.

He also said the discovery of carfentanil in the region is particularly troubling because of its potency. It's used by veterinarians to sedate large animals, such as elephants. Northam and Levine were not able to offer any more detail on the carfentanil case identified in this region.

Levine offered a litany of statistics to back up the declaration of a public health emergency:

* On average, three Virginians die of a drug overdose and over two dozen are treated in emergency rooms for drug overdoses each day.

* The number of emergency room visits because of heroin overdoses has increased 89 percent for the first nine months of the year compared with that period of 2015.

* During the first half of 2016, fatal drug overdoses increased 35 percent when compared with the same period in 2015.

* By the end of 2016, the number of fatal opioid overdoses is expected to increase by 77 percent compared with five years ago.

* Some parts of the state, such as the southwest region, are also seeing more hepatitis C and HIV cases related to injection drug use.

Levine advised people to learn the symptoms and signs of drug abuse and overdose, and resources for treatment by visiting a state website: www.VaAware.com.

(c)2016 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)