Deaths from heroin appear to be decreasing in the Culpeper region, but use of the deadly drug remains a major problem.
There were a total of 36 reported overdoses and 12 deaths by heroin in 2019 in Culpeper town and county, Fauquier County and Warrenton, Orange town and county, Madison County, Greene County and Rappahannock County, according to the Blue Ridge Narcotics & Gang Task Force.
The most deaths (five) occurred in Fauquier County last year followed by three in the town of Culpeper. Two died in Orange County from heroin while there was one each in Greene and Rappahannock counties, according to the task force.
In 2018, there were 29 deaths in this region reported to the task force, 34 in 2017, 44 in 2016 and 14 each in 2015 and 2014. In the past seven years, 146 people have died from using heroin in the aforementioned area covered by the task force.
At a recent town committee meeting, Culpeper Town Councilman Keith Price noted the big drop in deaths and overdoses from 2018 to 2019. He asked Culpeper Police Chief Chris Jenkins, who included the task force information in his monthly report, if the reduction was tied to the more frequent use of Narcan, which revives people who have overdosed from heroin or other opiates.
Jenkins said he would caution anyone to think the heroin epidemic is over. He noted REVIVE trainings to teach proper use of Narcan is now held on a regular basis. The police chief added, at one time not too long ago, “We were the only ones carrying Narcan.” Now, he added, many citizens, especially those impacted by overdoses are carrying it, including addicts.
Jenkins said the number of area overdoses is likely higher, noting the task force figures do not take into account local hospital data, which is not readily shared with local law enforcement.
“I don’t think we are coming out of this just yet,” he said.
Councilwoman Jamie Clancey asked about the higher rates in the Culpeper region of hepatitis C, an infection of the liver transmitted by blood, primarily through the sharing of needles used to inject heroin. A local health department representative last year implored elected officials from the county and town to implement a needle exchange program to curtail the outbreak, but to no success.
Jenkins responded by saying local health departments have not done enough to curtail heroin use. He said most local communities declined to participate in a needle exchange program in which drug users can trade in used syringes for new ones.
“It’s still paraphernalia, there are laws on the books, so to ask law enforcement to turn our heads puts us in a bad position,” Jenkins said.
He added law enforcement is supportive of a reduction in hepatitis C, but is not willing to disregard the criminality associated with needles being turned in that had been used for illegal drugs. State law authorizes needle exchange programs, but requires formal support from local law enforcement, which has been a difficult barrier from some organizations.
Jenkins mentioned a bill now under consideration in the General Assembly that would remove the requirement.
“We’ll have to see what comes out of Richmond,” he said.
A Virginia House of Delegates committee approved a bill earlier this week to continue needle exchange programs in Virginia. In 2016, Virginia’s health commissioner declared opioid addiction a public health emergency. Diana Jordan, director of the state health department’s division of diseases and prevention, said as long as that emergency declaration remains in place, the health department can continue to approve more harm reduction programs, according to the Roanoke Times.
Roanoke is set to open its harm reduction program, which will include a needle exchange, soon. It’ll be the fourth program in Virginia. The other three are in Wise and Smyth counties, as well as Richmond, the Roanoke Times reported.
Del. Ken Plum, D-Fairfax, is sponsoring the other bill mentioned by Jenkins, which would loosen the parameters for organizations to run needle exchanges, including the requirement that it be endorsed by law enforcement. It too passed out of committee earlier this week.