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Nonfatal Opioid Overdoses Skyrocketed in Richmond 

hospital signs
Directional signs at VCU Health. (Photo: Taber Andrew Bain/CC By 2.0)

*Patrick Larsen reported this story.

New data from VCU Medical Center shows a 123% increase in non-fatal overdose patients between March and June this year compared to the same time in 2019.

Dr. Taylor Ochalek researches substance use disorders at VCU. She led the study, and said the COVID-19 pandemic has led to situations that are especially hard on those dealing with substance use disorders.

“Social isolation, increased psychiatric symptoms, increased unemployment rates that we’ve seen all over the country,” Ochalek said.

Some patterns have emerged. Ochalek said Black people accounted for 80% of VCU Medical Center’s patients in this year’s data, nearly a 20% increase from last year. That mirrors the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on people of color.

Ochalek says data like this can show us connections between underserved communities and health outcomes. She also points out that 45% of the patients counted in the study were uninsured - a gap that she said could be covered better.

However, the study doesn’t say much about which factors are most important in the increase. The data is specific only to one emergency room, and the reason for overdoses often remains unclear.

“I don’t even want to say it’s a mixed bag. It’s all bad news when you talk about increases like that.”

- Jim May, Richmond Behavioral Health

Ochalek said that the data confirms anecdotal reports that overdoses were on the rise this year - but it can’t confirm reports that fentanyl, a cheap and highly dangerous synthetic opiate, has been found cut into more drugs this year than last.

“That’s definitely something that needs to be addressed within the research,” Ochalek said.

Jim May, director of Substance Use and Prevention Services at the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, has heard similar reports about fentanyl from clients - the increased activity has also been felt at recovery and treatment centers around the state. 

“I don’t even want to say it’s a mixed bag. It’s all bad news when you talk about increases like that,” May said.

Some of the health authority’s treatment centers have had to put patients on waiting lists.

“We’ve seen about, I don’t know, a 100 to 200% increase in referrals from around the state,” May said.

May agrees with Ochalek - the COVID-19 pandemic has left people feeling desperate, lonely and bored - but he wants people to remember that recovery is possible with support.

“Recovery happens every day in America,” May said.

Virginians struggling with substance use can reach the Richmond Behavioral Health Authority at 804-819-4100 or on their website for treatment.