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PolitiFact VA: Overdose deaths have risen sharply, but blaming one party is too simple

Person standing
Del. John McGuire (R-Goochland) attends the "God, Family and Guns" rally in Richmond in 2019. (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Speaker: Del. John McGuire
Statement: “Overdoses in Virginia (are) up 35%.”
Date: Dec. 3
Setting: Radio interview

Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland, recently cited “failed leadership” by Democrats in curbing drug overdoses as one of the reasons why he had announced his candidacy in next year’s race for the 7th District congressional seat.

“Overdoses in Virginia (are) up 35%,” he said in a Dec. 3 radio interview on WRVA in Richmond.

McGuire pointed blame at Democratic President Joe Biden and said U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, the two-term Democratic incumbent in the 7th District, has been ineffective on these issues. “She’s not there,” he said.

Since his comments, both McGuire’s and Spanberger political plans have been thrown in the air. A new redistricting map, submitted to the state Supreme Court for approval by a Democratic and Republican special master, placed each politician’s home outside of the 7th District. At this writing, Spanberger has not announced her plans. McGuire says he’ll wait for the political maps to be approved before making a decision.

McGuire’s claim about soaring Virginia drug overdoses remains relevant, however. We fact-checked his statement and found the state has seen at least a 35% increase in drug deaths during the 12 months between April 2020 and April 2021.

But McGuire’s effort to blame Democrats for the overdose surge in Virginia and across the nation does not statistically hold up.

The numbers

McGuire’s campaign told us his overdose data comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention which receives monthly reports on the number of drug deaths in each state.

The latest figures show Virginia had 1,660 overdose deaths during the year before the end of April 2020. That rose to 2,034 fatalities over the next year ending in April 2021 - a 23% increase.

McGuire, however, is citing a “predicted number” from the CDC - a monthly estimate the agency produces for each state because drug deaths often require lengthy investigations before being confirmed, creating a backlog.

The CDC estimates that Virginia’s actual yearly overdose deaths rose from 1,669 during the year ending in April 2020 to 2,262 in the year ending in April 2021. That 35.5% increase  jibes with McGuire’s statement.

Nationally, the CDC estimates that drug deaths rose nationally by 28.5%, from 78,056 in the 12 months preceding April 2020 to 100,306 during the year ending in April 2021.

Virginia’s Department of Health uses a broader definition of overdose deaths than the CDC and says state drug fatalities increased from 1,681 during the year ending March 31, 2020 to 2,543 in the year ending March 31, 2021 - a 51% rise.

The reasons

Experts say the main reason for the increase in Virginia and nationally is the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is many times more powerful than heroin. It is increasingly interlaced with other illicit drugs and some people may not have even been aware that they used it.

Virginia’s increase above the national average suggests a high presence of fentanyl in the state, according to Kathrin "Rosie" Hobron, statewide forensic epidemiologist for the Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

She also tied the increase to the coronavirus pandemic.

 “I talk to the treatment folks and they say during the lockdown, fewer people were going into treatment programs,” Hobron said. “There’s been a lot of insecurity about losing jobs and financial issues that might be pushing people towards drug use.”

McGuire lays the overdose surge at Biden’s feet, but the numbers don’t back him up. The national opioid epidemic precedes the Biden administration as does the recent uptick. CDC figures show national drug deaths increased by 29% percent during 2020, the last full year of Republican President Donald Trump’s administration. The agency estimates Virginia overdoses increased 42% that year.

Our ruling

McGuire says, “overdoses in Virginia (are) up 35%.” He accurately relays CDC statistics that estimate state drug deaths rose by 35.5% from April 2020 to April 2021. The Virginia Department of Health, which uses a broader definition of overdose deaths than the CDC, says drug fatalities increased 51% from April 2020 to March 2021.

But McGuire’s context - blaming Biden for the surge - is a reach. The CDC estimates overdoses rose 29% nationally and 42% in Virginia during Trump’s last year in office. In pointing out these figures, we are not trying to assign political blame, but noting that the increases do not correspond to any single party or elected official. 

We rate McGuire’s claim Mostly True.

Sources
Del. John McGuire, WRVA radio interview, Dec. 3, 2021 (8:17 mark)
Richmond Times-Dispatch, “Court experts' proposed congressional map would draw Spanberger out of 7th District,” Dec. 8, 2021
Email from Miles Novak, campaign spokesman for Del. John McGuire, Dec. 8. 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “12 Month-ending Provisional Number of Drug Overdose Deaths,” accessed Dec. 9, 2021
Virginia Department of Health, “Fatal Drug Overdose Quarterly Report,” 2nd Quarter 2021
Interview with Kathrin "Rosie" Hobron, Statewide Forensic Epidemiologist, Virginia Department of Health Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, Dec. 10, 2021.
National Institute on Drug Research, “Fentanyl DrugFacts,” accessed Dec. 10, 2021