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A kid runs past Vienna Town Hall (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

The Town of Vienna wants to give its employees more breathing room — literally.

Some space has been freed up in town hall by the Vienna Police Department’s criminal investigations bureau relocating to its recently completed station. The department’s transition to the new station will be conclude with its communications team moving in by the end of January, according to a spokesperson.

As a result, the town is reorganizing how it uses the town hall building at 127 Center Street South to maximize efficiency and relieve cramped conditions that relegated one worker to a ventilated computer server room, Town Manager Mercury Payton told the Vienna Town Council on Jan. 9.

“[That] probably wasn’t the best thing for his health. We’re going to be moving him out of that area into a vacated space,” Payton said. “So, we’ve already kind of determined internally ourselves some of our best moves, and then we’ve kind of gone as far as we can go.”

To assist with the reconfiguration, the town council approved a $84,900 contract for PMA Architecture to conduct an office space study. The consulting firm was chosen from 10 candidates based on its “innovative yet practical ideas” and experience working with smaller governments, Vienna Finance Director Marion Serfass said.

Built almost 60 years ago, town hall was last renovated in 2014 when it got a new heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system, but there was little consideration of workplace layout at that time — an oversight that became apparent as Covid heightened concerns about the spread of disease.

About 47 employees work out of town hall, not including the 12 recently relocated police personnel, according to a request for proposals issued by the town in August.

While there hasn’t been a huge increase in staff, the services offered by the town have evolved and expanded, Serfass said.

“We’re focusing on economic development, we’re focusing on video content, we’re adding slightly to town hall staff,” she said. “Some of these additions are temporary, but some may become permanent, so town hall staff is sort of bursting at the seams right now.”

The funds for the space study come from Vienna’s American Rescue Plan Act allotment, which can be used to prevent the spread of disease in the workplace. The town previously used federal Covid relief money to install an air filtration system and Plexiglas barriers, among other needs, according to Serfass.

In addition to reviewing room layouts, equipment and storage space, the study will take security needs into account, PMA Architecture Principal Katie Stodghill told the town council.

“I was very pleased to hear you raise the issue of public safety,” Councilmember Ed Somers said. “We live in a different era than we did years ago. We deal with a number of issues where people are frustrated about many things, and their most accessible level of government…is their local government. I do worry often about our staff that are there all the time.”

An exact timeline for the study hasn’t been established yet, but when it’s completed, a final report and the consultant’s recommended solution will be presented to the town council.

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A deer checks out leaves by an asphalt path in Vienna (staff photo by Angela Woolsey)

A neurological disease that’s fatal to deer has been detected in Fairfax County for the first time ever.

Chronic wasting disease (CWD) was found in an adult male deer killed by a hunter in the Vienna area this past October, the Virginia Department of Wildlife Resources (DWR) reported Friday (Jan. 13).

The department says it confirmed the diagnosis with a sample obtained shortly after the deer was taken to a taxidermist in late October

“At the time of harvest, no outward signs of disease were noted, and the deer appeared to be in good condition,” DWR said in a news release. “Because this is the first CWD-positive detection in Fairfax County, a county bordering Disease Management Area 2 (DMA2), the DWR conducted an extensive forensic investigation to confirm the harvest location of this deer.”

Disease Management Area 2 encompasses Loudoun, Culpeper, Fauquier, Madison, Orange, Page, Rappahannock counties, where four instances of the disease — including one in Loudoun County — were detected during the 2021-2022 deer-hunting season.

First detected in Virginia in 2009, CWD is caused by an infectious protein called a prion that get transmitted to deer through saliva, feces, and urine from infected deer as well as through contaminated soil, according to DWR.

It can take months or even over a year after being exposed for infected deer to show symptoms, which include “staggering, abnormal posture, lowered head, drooling, confusion, and marked weight loss,” the department says.

While the disease isn’t known to be infectious or dangerous to humans, pets or livestock, DWR advises all hunters with deer from CWD-positive areas to get them tested and avoid eating meat from animals that test positive.

The department also recommends against transporting deer carcasses or parts with brain or spinal cord tissue from Fairfax County to an area where CWD hasn’t been detected before. Deer parts should be put in double bags and disposed of in a landfill or a trash bin, where they can be collected.

The state says it won’t make any regulatory changes in response to the CWD detection in Fairfax County until after the current hunting season, but drop sites where deer heads can be taken for CWD testing will be added before the next season. Right now, the closest options are in Loudoun.

Though deer-hunting season is mostly over in Virginia, Fairfax County is one of several localities included in the state’s urban archery program, which restricts hunters to deer without antlers and lasts through March 26.

In an effort to manage local deer populations, Fairfax County is allowing hunting with bows and arrows at over 100 parks in its 2022-2023 archery season, which runs through Feb. 18. Testing for CWD has been conducted throughout the county in recent years as part of its deer management program.

“Since the 2019-2020 season, over 750 deer have been tested, with this being the only detection to date in the county,” DWR said.

The Fairfax County Police Department’s wildlife management staff, which has been assisting with CWD surveillance efforts since 2019, will work with DWR to “determine any new rules or regulatory changes that will occur.” It will also help identify testing options for hunters participating in the county archery program or on private property.

This has evidently been a year for new diseases in local nature. Last week, the county announced that beech leaf disease has been found in three parks, putting one of the area’s most common tree species at risk.

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All Fairfax Health District COVID-19 cases, as of Jan. 3, 2023 (via VDH)

Fairfax County ended 2022 with a “medium” level of COVID-19 in the community, the first time it reached that level since August.

Continuing an upward trend that began around Thanksgiving, the county is averaging 291 cases per day for the past week, the highest weekly average since Aug. 13, per Virginia Department of Health data.

However, increased hospitalizations pushed the county from “low” to “medium,” as of Dec. 29, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the county’s case rate of 147.19 cases per 100,000 residents is below the CDC’s 200-case threshold, there were 11 new hospital patients admitted with Covid for every 100,000 residents in the week of Dec. 21-28. In addition, 6.4% of all staffed, inpatient beds are being occupied by people with Covid.

Those numbers changed slightly earlier this week. As of Monday (Jan. 2), 7.6% of beds were being used by Covid patients, and the hospitalization rate dipped to 9.2 patients per 100,000 residents, which would put the county back in “low” territory.

Fairfax County Covid hospitalization rates, as of Jan. 2, 2023 (via CDC)

The CDC is supposed to update its local community level classifications on Thursdays, but the dashboard still said “medium” by press time.

Despite the recent resurgence in the coronavirus, which remains far from the heights seen last winter, the Fairfax County Department of Health says it’s “unlikely” to bring back the face mask requirements that were in place until last February, unless a mandate is recommended by the CDC or the state.

The county’s approach reflects a national shift away from mandates in the public health response to the pandemic.

“To help prevent spread of COVID, FCHD does strongly recommend that our residents stay up-to-date with their COVID-19 vaccinations,” department spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said by email. “In addition, handwashing, getting tested if symptomatic and/or staying home when ill will also help stem the spread of COVID in the community.”

While the county’s mobile testing and mass vaccine sites were phased out last month, the FCHD still offers both services at its district offices, though anyone in need must call 703-324-7404 to make an appointment. Testing sites can be found through the VDH, and vaccine options are at vaccines.gov.

There have been 2.8 million vaccine doses administered to residents of the Fairfax Health District, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church as well as the county.

According to the FCHD, 86% of residents have gotten at least one dose, including:

  • 93% of people 18 and older
  • 99% of 16-17 year olds
  • 95.6% of 12-15 year olds
  • 64.2% of 5-11 year olds
  • 22.7% of kids aged 6 months to 4 years old

As of yesterday, 942,162 residents — or 79.6% — are fully vaccinated, including 86.7% of adults. Booster uptake remains under 50% for all age groups under 45.

The district has reported a total of 259,627 cases, 5,273 hospitalizations and 1,729 deaths during the pandemic.

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Face masks (via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash)

When Fairfax County Public Schools resumes classes in January, students and staff may once again be required to wear face masks — but only around students with disabilities who request the accommodation.

Virginia settled a lawsuit last week with parents of 12 immunocompromised students who argued that the end of Covid-related face mask requirements in schools violated their right to a free, appropriate public education.

As part of the settlement, the state agreed that, if requested by a parent, schools must allow “some amount of required masking as a reasonable modification” under the Americans with Disabilities Act. The Virginia Department of Education was directed to send guidance on “peer masking” to the schools attended by students in the lawsuit, including Stenwood Elementary School in Dunn Loring.

“The health and well-being of our students and staff remain a top priority. FCPS is aware of this settlement and is currently assessing how it impacts operations,” FCPS said in a statement.

The settlement only directly applies to the specific schools attended by the plaintiffs’ kids, who have asthma, cystic fibrosis and other conditions that put them at high risk of getting severely sick if they contract COVID-19.

However, when announcing the settlement on Dec. 12, the ACLU of Virginia — one of several organizations representing the parents — expressed hope that it will signal to other schools that they should consider requiring masks when needed for students with disabilities as well.

“We’re hopeful that every school in Virginia will view this settlement as a sign that they should make similar accommodations for their students, even if they are not part of the case,” ACLU of Virginia Legal Director Eden Heilman said.

The complaint was filed in federal court in Charlottesville on Feb. 1, shortly after Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s executive order making masks optional in schools took effect.

FCPS and six other school districts sued Youngkin in an effort to block the order, arguing that universal masking was still necessary as the country was just starting to exit the biggest surge in COVID-19 cases of the pandemic.

That lawsuit was rendered moot once a bill requiring schools to allow parents to opt their kids out of wearing a mask became law on Feb. 16. FCPS made masks optional on March 1, though the school board filed a brief supporting the families who sued.

Acknowledging an initial court ruling from March, the settlement says the state law and executive order don’t prohibit schools from considering and fulfilling mask requirement requests to accommodate students with disabilities.

Under the agreement, schools are expected to look at alternatives, such as ventilation improvements or social distancing, before requiring masks. They must also “take every reasonable step” to ensure a student whose parents don’t want them to wear a mask doesn’t have to.

The settlement also required the state to pay $295,000 to cover the suing parents’ legal fees.

“This settlement is a step toward righting a wrong,” Tasha Nelson, one of the parents, said. “Children like mine should not be told they cannot participate safely in school or that they have to be segregated. They have a right to the same education as every other child. As adults, it’s our responsibility to make sure that we include everyone in our decisions and come up with solutions that provide equity in school.”

While Covid cases haven’t gotten close to last winter’s levels, they have been climbing over the past few weeks, with the Fairfax Health District averaging 260.3 cases per day for the preceding week, as of yesterday (Monday).

FCPS has reported a total of 5,969 cases among students and staff since this school year began on Aug. 22 — exceeding the 3,669 cases seen over the same time frame in 2021. Students are now on winter break until Jan. 3.

Photo via Mika Baumeister/Unsplash

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Fairfax Health District COVID-19 cases over the past 26 weeks, as of Dec. 15, 2022 (via VDH)

Vaccines designed to combat omicron subvariants of COVID-19 are now available in Fairfax County for everyone 6 months and older.

The Fairfax County Health Department has obtained updated or bivalent vaccines for kids 6 months to 5 years old after federal health officials approved the shots to that age group last week.

The shots became available to people 12 and older in August, and eligibility expanded to kids 5 to 11 years old in October.

“The updated vaccines provide protection from both the original virus strain as well as the more recently circulating Omicron variant,” the FCHD said. “Getting the updated booster dose is important because protection decreases over time and as the virus changes.”

Time is running out, though, to get shots from the county’s mass Covid vaccine clinics. As announced last month, the clinic at the Hyland South County Center administered its last dose yesterday (Wednesday), and the Fairfax County Government Center clinic will close at 3:45 p.m. on Saturday (Dec. 17).

The county will still distribute Covid vaccines, but after Saturday, those seeking an appointment at one of the health department’s district offices must contact their call center at 703-324-7404. Other options for getting a shot can be found at vaccines.gov.

Kids under 5 can get the bivalent vaccine as either a booster if they’ve gotten the Moderna vaccine or the third dose in their “primary series” of Pfizer vaccinations.

“Children 6 months-4 years who already completed their three-dose primary series with the original Pfizer vaccine are not eligible for an updated booster dose at this time,” the department said. “The data to support giving an updated bivalent booster dose to these children are expected in January.”

It’s now been almost two years since the county received its first Covid vaccine shipment. In that time, more than 2.8 million doses have been administered to residents of the Fairfax Health District, which also includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church.

Over 1 million residents — 85.9% of the population — have gotten at least one dose, including:

  • 93% of people 18 and older
  • 99% of 16-17 year olds
  • 95.6% of 12-15 year olds
  • 64% of 5-11 year olds

However, just 21.9% of kids under 5 have received a dose, per FCHD data. While the vaccines don’t provide complete protection against contracting Covid, they lower the risk of serious illness, hospitalization, and both short and long-term complications from the disease, health officials say. Read More

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Fairfax Health District COVID-19 cases over the past 26 weeks, as of Dec. 5, 2022 (via VDH)

The Fairfax Health District saw an uptick in COVID-19 cases in Thanksgiving’s wake, a reminder that the coronavirus hasn’t disappeared even if the face masks and other health protocols aimed at limiting its spread mostly have.

The district, which includes Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church, is averaging 238 cases per day for the past week, as of yesterday, according to Virginia Department of Health data.

Cases remain far below previous winters or even the surge seen in late May fueled by omicron subvariants, but there has been an increase since Nov. 19 after a plateau through most of the fall. This is the first time the weekly average has exceeded 200 cases since Sept. 15.

In addition, the district is averaging 1.7 deaths per day from Covid. During the pandemic, it has reported 251,405 cases, 5,149 hospitalizations and 1,702 deaths.

All Fairfax Health District COVID-19 cases, as of Dec. 5, 2022 (via VDH)

Though past years suggest cold weather exacerbates Covid transmission, Fairfax County is set to close its mass vaccine clinics and mobile testing sites next week.

Citing “low demand,” the Fairfax County Health Department confirmed Friday (Dec. 2) that the startup Curative will stop operating in the county after Thursday, Dec. 15, as first reported by DCist. The partnership launched in July, bringing Curative’s vans with no-cost PCR tests to six locations in the community.

With rapid at-home testing more widely available now, albeit not necessarily for free, residents can find Covid testing options using VDH’s online search tool, calling health care providers directly or contacting the Fairfax County Call Center at 703-324-7404.

“Call takers will discuss their individual situation and what options may work best for them, which could include an appointment at one of the Health Department’s District Offices,” an FCHD spokesperson said. “We also continue to work on establishing additional options for distribution of rapid COVID-19 tests with our community partners. Many testing options are available in the community and the Health Department remains committed to helping residents find an option that works for them.”

According to its website, the county health department offers testing for individuals who have Covid symptoms, lack access to testing options in the community, are identified as close contacts, or have returned from traveling outside the country.

The county will also close its vaccine clinics at the South County Government Center on Wednesday, Dec. 14 and the Fairfax County Government Center on Saturday, Dec. 17. The operating hours for both sites have been reduced since early November. Read More

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Teddy bear with a face mask and stethoscope (via Myriam Zilles on Unsplash)

(Updated at 4:15 p.m.) While the wave of COVID-19 cases seen over the past two winters hasn’t yet materialized this year, increased reports of other respiratory illnesses have local hospitals and health officials bracing for a particularly tough cold season.

Fairfax County and other Northern Virginia public health leaders are urging community members “to maintain their vigilance” and help prevent the spread of influenza and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), which are both surging earlier than usual.

“This is especially important because as temperatures cool, we spend more time indoors with others, and may travel to gather with friends and family for celebrations who are at increased risk of severe complications from infection,” the Northern Virginia Regional Commission (NVRC) said in a news release yesterday.

Inova activated its emergency plan to handle a surge in patients last month. The health care provider resumed normal operations on Nov. 8, but said “volumes continue to be high across the health system, particularly in pediatric services.”

HCA Healthcare, which owns Reston Hospital Center and Tysons Emergency, said its facilities in the area have also seen an increase in flu and RSV cases.

“We have been able to manage this increase in volume. We are increasing our staff and streamlining our processes in anticipation of a challenging winter season,” Reston Hospital Center Chief Medical Officer Dr. Carnell Cooper said.

Flu season is here

The Fairfax County Health Department confirmed that both flu and RSV cases have been rising locally.

“There is an increasing trend in visits to emergency departments and urgent care centers for influenza-like illness and laboratory results of confirmatory tests, and we have investigated a higher number of outbreaks than expected for this time of year,” the FCHD told FFXnow.

Virginia is seeing a very high level of activity for influenza-like illnesses (ILL), as of the week that ended Nov. 5, according to the Virginia Department of Health. The rating by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is based on outpatient visits to health care providers for respiratory illness involving a cough or sore throat and fever.

Respiratory illness activity levels by state, as of Nov. 5 (via CDC)

Per VDH, 9% of emergency department and urgent care center visits in the state are ILL-related, with kids 4 and younger making up 21.4% of visits — continuing a trend that health officials fear signals a worse flu season than in recent years, according to the NVRC.

While no deaths have been reported, Virginia has recorded 5,997 infections and 58 outbreaks so far this flu season, which started in mid-October and typically peaks between December and February.

“While it is unclear what exactly is driving this earlier increase in ILI activity from previous years, based on recent flu season reporting from the Southern Hemisphere, we anticipated this early peak to our own flu season,” the FCHD said.

County health officials recommends annual flu vaccinations for everyone 6 months and older. Shots are available from the county by appointment and at pharmacies, doctor’s offices and other locations in the community.

What to know about RSV

In addition to the disproportionate number of flu infections, young kids are getting hit hard by RSV, a common virus that produces usually mild, cold-like symptoms but “can be very dangerous for babies, young children or those who are immunocompromised,” the NVRC says.

“Emergency department and urgent care visits with diagnosed RSV have been increasing rapidly since early September,” the commission said. Read More

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Vienna police officers will forgo shaving to raise money for prostate cancer research (via Town of Vienna Police/Facebook)

Male police officers in the Town of Vienna will forgo shaving razors this November for a second consecutive year.

Starting yesterday through Nov. 30, Chief Jim Morris has suspended the Vienna Police Department’s usual prohibition against facial hair to support its “Grow & Give” fundraising campaign, which aims to increase awareness and money for prostate cancer research.

The nationwide initiative benefits ZERO, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that assists prostate cancer patients and their families and supports research, treatment and educational programs.

“Last year, our small department raised the second-highest amount of any public safety organization in the country for the cancer charity — more than $8,000 — and that’s thanks to the generosity of our community,” Morris said in a news release.

The total funds contributed in 2021 easily surpassed the department’s $3,000 goal. It hopes to raise at least $5,000 this year.

Morris said the fundraiser is “especially meaningful” to VPD Public Information Officer Juan Vasquez, whose father died from prostate cancer.

“Participating officers hope that as they start to look a little scruffy in their efforts to support life-saving research,” the VPD said. “Others will be inspired to learn more about the illness and donate to the campaign to help find a cure for prostate cancer.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the most common cancers among men in the U.S. are skin and prostate cancer. The latter affects about 13 out of every 100 men, with the risk of getting the disease increasing with age. Black men and people with a family history of prostate cancer are also disproportionately affected.

According to ZERO, which launched in 1996 as the National Prostate Cancer Coalition, 98% of men with prostate cancer survive the first five years after a diagnosis, but that rate drops to 31% if the disease has reached an advanced stage.

ZERO is among several cancer-related nonprofits with a fundraising campaign that encourages people to forgo shaving during November.

The trend started in 2003 with the Australia-based Movember Foundation, which focuses specifically on men’s health. The California-based Matthew Hill Foundation introduced No-Shave November in 2009 as a nod to the hair loss that many cancer patients experience when undergoing chemotherapy, according to its website.

Photo via Town of Vienna Police/Facebook

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Fairfax Health District COVID-19 cases over the past 26 weeks, as of Oct. 17, 2022 (via VDH)

(Updated at 4:30 p.m.) Booster COVID-19 vaccinations for kids aged 5 to 11 were put on hold late last week, as the Fairfax County Health Department transitions to updated vaccines that target omicron variants of the disease.

Federal health officials expanded their recommendation for the bivalent booster vaccines to include that younger age group on Wednesday (Oct. 12), saying the updated shots will provide better protection against “more transmissible and immune-evading” variants.

The bivalent boosters were authorized for people 12 and older at the end of August. The county health department says it has seen “a mild demand” for the vaccine since it became available in September.

“Typically, there is a surge when additional eligibility is updated, but the situation cools after a couple of weeks. That is typical of this update as well,” FCHD spokesperson Lucy Caldwell said. “We have no issues with vaccine supply and it is widely available throughout the community, pharmacies, medical providers, and our County sites, at this time.”

The authorization for the previous Pfizer booster shots for kids 5 to 11 ended on Oct. 12, so the health department stopped administering boosters for that age group until the new ones arrive.

The bivalent boosters will be available for kids at the Fairfax County Government Center and South County Hyland Center vaccine clinics starting tomorrow (Tuesday). Appointments are encouraged, but walk-ins are also allowed.

About 14% of kids aged 5 to 11 have gotten a Covid booster since they became eligible in May, according to FCHD data.

The FCHD reports that 85.7% of residents in the Fairfax Health District, which includes the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church as well as the county, have gotten at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, including:

  • 93% of people aged 18 and older
  • 99.5% of 16-17 year olds
  • 95.9% of 12-15 year olds
  • 63.6% of 5-11 year olds
  • 18.6% of kids aged 6 months to 4 years old

After an initial surge, vaccine demand has slowed among families with infants and toddlers, a nationwide trend that worries public health experts. While still low, Fairfax County’s rate for that age group is more than twice as high was the national rate of 9%, FCHD Director of Epidemiology and Population Health Dr. Benjamin Schwartz said.

“Despite this higher rate, the health department continues to stress the importance of protecting these young children who can suffer severe COVID-19 and who may bring COVID-19 into a family where it can spread to others who may be vulnerable,” Schwartz said.

Overall, 78.1% of the district’s population, or 924,525 people, are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, including 85.7% of adults. Read More

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Fairfax County has launched a new data dashboard on opioid overdoses (via Fairfax County Health Department)

With opioids topping the list of causes of non-natural death in Fairfax County, local health officials have launched a new resource to give residents a better understanding of the situation.

A public-facing dashboard went live Monday (Oct. 3) with data about opioid overdoses and overdose deaths in the Fairfax Health District, which includes Fairfax County and the cities of Fairfax and Falls Church.

The Fairfax County Health Department worked with the county’s Opioid and Substance Use Task Force to put the dashboard together, according to the announcement.

“The goal of the dashboard is to ensure that Fairfax County residents understand the threat that opioid drugs pose in our community and recognize that overdoses and overdose deaths affect a wide range of ages, people of both sexes, and all racial and ethnic groups,” Dr. Benjamin Schwartz, the county’s director of epidemiology and population health, said in the release.

The dashboard provides information about overdoses broken down by age, race and ethnicity. It will be updated in the first week of every month, according to the announcement.

As of press time, the dashboard counted 205 non-fatal opioid overdoses from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30 in the Fairfax Health District. There were 237 non-fatal overdoses at this point in 2021.

The dashboard also noted that the first quarter of 2022 saw 20 fatal opioid overdoses, compared to 31 during the first quarter of 2021.

“We want the public to be aware of overdose trends, which reflect the impacts of social factors, the types and availability of drugs, and the effect of mitigation measures including law enforcement, treatment and harm reduction measures,” Schwartz said.

The data comes from two main places: A system managed by the state health department that keeps track of emergency room and urgent care visits for overdoses, and the Virginia Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

Earlier this year, county medical officials worked to step up their response to the opioid epidemic after emergency care statistics showed an increase in overdoses, particularly cases involving teenagers.

The county provides services to assist people struggling with opioid use, including the Fairfax-Falls Church Community Services Board Peer Outreach Response Team and the Fairfax Detoxification Center.

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