Virginia’s health commissioner on Monday declared opioid addiction to be a public health emergency and issued a standing prescription for any resident to get the drug Naloxone, which is used to treat overdoses.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) said the actions are in response to not only the rising problem of painkiller overdoses, but also to evidence that a synthetic large-animal sedative called Carfentamil is being abused in Virginia.
Massachusetts declared opioids to be a public health emergency in 2014, and a bipartisan group in the Ohio legislature is urging Gov. John Kasich (R) to take the same step. Last week, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued a report urging the nation to treat addiction as a chronic illness and calling the crisis “a moral test for America.”
Nationally, 78 people die every day from opioid overdoses, according to Murthy. In Virginia, three people die every day from an overdose and more than two dozen are treated in emergency rooms, according to the state health commissioner. Emergency room visits for heroin overdoses were up 89 percent through September in Virginia compared with the same period last year.
“Too many families across Virginia and the nation are dealing with heartbreak and loss as a result of prescription opioid and heroin abuse epidemic,” McAuliffe said in a news release. The emergency declaration does not carry the force of law, but McAuliffe said that it is designed to “heighten awareness of this issue, provide a framework for further actions to fight it, and to save Virginians’ lives.”
McAuliffe signed bills last year that made Naloxone more readily available to emergency first-responders and allowed pharmacists more leeway in dispensing it. But those steps still required users to have a prescription, and caused pharmacists to work with physicians to determine who could qualify for a standing prescription.
Created in the early 1960s, Naloxone is a type of drug that blocks opioid receptors in the body and can quickly counteract the effects of an overdose. It has no addictive properties of its own, and studies have found no evidence of adverse side effects. Emergency responders generally have described it as a near-miracle drug for preventing overdose deaths.
On Monday, Virginia Health Commissioner Marissa J. Levine issued a standing order permitting all Virginians to have access to the drug - in effect, a blanket prescription for all residents. The state’s roughly 2,000 pharmacies should have an adequate supply, she said.
“We realized there were still gaps in terms of where in the commonwealth people could have access to Naloxone,” Levine said. Many smaller pharmacies, she said, didn’t have the resources to work with doctors to issue standing orders for patients in need.
Her order, which she said was drawn in consultation with other states and localities that have done the same thing, does not carry funding to pay for expanded access to the drug.
She said preparations for the order have been going on for some time, but that the matter was made more urgent just last month when the department’s forensics sciences unit determined that the drug Carfentanil had turned up in Virginia. That synthetic opioid is “10,000 times more potent than morphine and 100 times more potent than fentanyl” - a synthetic pain killer, according to the health commissioner.
The shift toward such powerful synthetic drugs puts added pressure on health officials already straining to keep up with the epidemic of addiction, state Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Hazel said in a news release.
“The overdose rates in Virginia have led me to agree with Dr. Levine that we are indeed experiencing a public health emergency,” Hazel said. “This declaration helps us respond in a nimble way to a rapidly changing threat, while the Naloxone standing order from Dr. Levine broadens our ability to get life-saving medication into Virginians’ hands.”
The state has established a new web site - www.VaAware.com - that provides resources for dealing with addiction.