Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring came to Northern Virginia on Wednesday, a part of the state where the opioid epidemic has been relatively muted, to applaud efforts to prevent and treat addiction and encourage police and emergency workers to continue sharing information and strategies.
Fatal drug overdoses in the commonwealth jumped 38 percent in 2016, with about 1,100 of the 1,400 overdoses caused by opioids, heroin or prescription or synthetic fentanyl, Herring (D) told a gathering of Alexandria police, paramedics and city employees.
Although Northern Virginia is home to about 25 percent of the state’s 8 million residents, it accounted for about 17 percent of the opioid fatalities — 189 — last year.
Statewide, “the numbers are so big they almost don’t seem real,” said Herring, who has made addressing the epidemic his signature initiative over the past four years. “We have too many empty bedrooms, too many empty chairs at kitchen tables.”
Herring, who is on a statewide tour to press for more attention to addiction, said the crisis has affected young and old and both urban and rural communities.
He pointed to the recent arrest of members of what local authorities called a “significant heroin- trafficking ring” in Alexandria.
Alexandria officials said they have set up a cross-departmental team to monitor and share data between police, parole officers, hospital and treatment programs. Over the past two years, the team has developed referral cards in English and Spanish for people who might need treatment and worked to educate the public and reduce demand for opioids.
The number of overdose deaths is not increasing in Alexandria, as it is elsewhere in the commonwealth, “but we still see an ebb and flow,” said deputy police chief David Huchler. “We continually monitor it.”
Herring’s office has produced a 10-minute film “When Seconds Count: How Law Enforcement Can Save a Life During an Overdose,” which the attorney general is encouraging police departments to show at daily roll calls. About 18 months ago, the office created an award-winning documentary called “Heroin: The Hardest Hit.”
Both are available on YouTube and on the attorney general’s website.
Herring has supported laws to encourage people to report overdoses in progress without fear of arrest themselves; expansion of the availability of Naloxone, which reverses overdoses, to law enforcers; and allowing probation officers to access the state’s prescription monitoring program to make sure their probationers are not getting unauthorized opioid prescriptions.
He also arranged for the donation of 80,000 drug deactivation kits, which safely dispose of unused prescriptions.
“I want to get this turned around, but this is a problem decades in the making and it’s not going to turn around overnight,” Herring said. “I draw hope from the number of people who are now talking about this problem.”
This story has been updated.