‘We’re cautiously optimistic:’ Drug data shows a dip in opioid deaths, but meth fatalities skyrocket

Virginia Mercury

For the first time since 2012, the number of fatal drug overdoses in Virginia fell last year, according to the Fatal Drug Overdose Quarterly Report, which shows 17 fewer opioid deaths and a spike in methamphetamine and cocaine fatalities, due largely to the deadliness of fentanyl.

The report, compiled by Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, shows total drug deaths falling from 1,536 in 2017 to 1,484 last year.

There was a slight decrease in deaths from all opioids — including prescription painkillers as well as heroin and fentanyl. It dropped from 1,230 in 2017 to 1,213. (Previous data showed 1,229 deaths in 2017, but later reports confirmed an additional fatal opioid overdose.)

“I think probably the best phrase to say is: We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Rosie Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

The report notes that the 2018 data is not final, as 30 cases remain open, “awaiting additional reports to certify cause and manner of death.”

While the overall numbers are positive, the third quarter of last year was the worst on record for fatal drug overdoses in Virginia, with 423 deaths, Hobron said.

There was also a substantial increase in the number of methamphetamine deaths. They rose by 44.3 percent, and cocaine deaths increased by 11.5 percent.

The total number is still far lower than opioid deaths, but, according to the report, most of those fatal overdoses included a mixture of drugs — usually fentanyl, the incredibly dangerous and deadly synthetic opioid.

“People are using multiple drugs, unbeknownst to them,” Hobron said.

A whopping 65 percent of cocaine deaths and 46.5 percent of methamphetamine deaths were mixed with fentanyl.

In total, fentanyl or a fentanyl analog, which are slightly different in their chemical structure, caused or contributed to nearly 55 percent of the fatal overdoses in 2018.

“We’ve heard reports of users going out and saying ‘I’m looking for cocaine, I want to buy cocaine,’ and they buy what they think is cocaine, and it’s laced with fentanyl,” Hobron said.

The next iteration of the Fatal Drug Overdose Quarterly Report is due to come out in July with data from the first quarter of 2019.