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Fentanyl and youth overdoses among concerning trends in opioid epidemic, county says

A bag of fentanyl pills (via DEA/Flickr)

Opioid overdoses have been on the rise in Fairfax County since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

After declining between 2017 and 2019, overdoses increased in the Fairfax Health District from 285 in 2019 — 83 of them fatal — to at least 366 in 2022, including 63 fatalities, as of Sept. 30, according to the data dashboard that the Fairfax County Health Department launched last fall.

The department updated the dashboard last week to better illustrate two trends: the presence of fentanyl in nearly all overdose deaths and an increase in overdoses among youths, including kids and teens.

The dashboard now lists people 17 and under as a distinct age group and provides data specifically on fatal overdoses involving fentanyl “to help Fairfax County residents better understand the threat that opioids, including fentanyl, pose in the community,” Director of Epidemiology and Population Health Dr. Benjamin Schwartz said.

The platform previously only highlighted fatalities based on whether they involved prescription opioids or heroin, though the health department notes that overdoses may stem from multiple drugs.

Fairfax County opioid overdoses, as of Feb. 14, 2023 (via Fairfax County Health Department)

Of the 63 deaths reported in 2022 through September, 61 or 97% involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be used for pain management like morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. In 2021, fentanyl was used in 103 fatal overdoses, compared to 23 for other prescription drugs and 12 for heroin.

“There is an urgent need to bring information to light to make sure teens and families know that the risk is real and that fentanyl poisonings are happening here in our communities,” Schwartz said, stating that the epidemic continues to affect people of all genders and all racial and ethnic groups.

Fairfax County has recently focused its efforts to combat opioids on teens after seeing “a concerning number” of nonfatal overdoses in early 2022, specifically in the Richmond Highway corridor.

The Fairfax Health District, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, saw five nonfatal overdoses among kids 17 and under just this past January, according to the opioid dashboard. There were 27 nonfatal overdoses in that age group in 2022.

Drug use in schools has emerged as a concern in light of overdoses in Alexandria City and especially Arlington County, where a 14-year-old student died earlier this month.

As of Feb. 4, the Fairfax County Police Department had responded to 26 overdoses among youths 17 and under since Aug. 1, 2022, including one death. Police responded to 30 youth overdoses — five of them fatal — between Aug. 1, 2021 and July 31, 2022.

FCPD spokesperson Tara Gerhard says none of the fatalities occurred on school grounds, noting that the provided statistics “are subject to revision based on lab results and or additional investigation.”

In response to the continued prevalence of overdoses, the county advises community members to talk to their kids or others affected by substance misuse, and to dispose of unused or expired medications. It also suggests taking a training class for administering naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug that could soon be available over the counter.

The FCPD has partnered with Fairfax County Public Schools and the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board to give presentations about drug issues at local schools. Over 20 in-person sessions have been scheduled this year through March, and a virtual session will be held on March 21, according to Gerhard.

Led by the county’s Opioid and Substance Use Task Force, efforts to curb youth overdoses have also included expanding the availability of naloxone to FCPS staff, working with the court system to provide educational and intervention services, and pushing for more treatment options, Gerhard said.

She noted that the county also has programs focused on adults, since the majority of overdoses still involve people between the ages of 20 and 64.

The county has a few options for accessing its substance use-related resources:

If the situation is immediately life-threatening, call 911. Fairfax County Fire and Rescue personnel carry medication that can prevent deaths from opioid overdose.

Call the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board (CSB) Entry & Referral line at 703-383-8500, Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., to access behavioral health services, including substance use treatment services for youth and adults.

If it’s after business hours, call CSB Emergency Services at 703-573-5679 or the Fairfax Detoxification Center at 703-502-7000; both are available 24/7.

CSB Peer Outreach Response Team (PORT) provides outreach, engagement and resource navigation to individuals who have serious opioid and other substance use challenges. If you or someone you know could benefit from PORT services, call 703-559-3199.

Photo via DEA/Flickr

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