Virginia saw fall in overdose deaths in 2023 but experts remain cautious

ROANOKE, Va. (WFXR) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released 2023 overdose death data Wednesday, May 15, showing fatalities across the United States fell since 2022. Virginia followed that trend, seeing a 4% drop according to data from the Virginia Department of Health.

Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition’s executive director Danny Clawson shares the same caution some national experts are voicing.

“The reason people are being cautious is because the drug supply is constantly shifting and changing,” said Clawson. “Here in the Roanoke metro area, we have been experiencing an increase in reported overdoses for over a week now.”

Clawson says contamination in the drug supply is one reason why more Virginians died from cocaine in 2023. While fatalities decreased overall, cocaine-related deaths rose 5%.

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“Crack cocaine does not historically cause overdose. Why would it? It doesn’t have opioids in it, but we are seeing extensive contamination of the drug supply with fentanyl,” said Clawson.

VDH data shows 82% of cocaine overdoses in 2023 included fentanyl.

“They get a substance contaminated with fentanyl and because they do not perceive their risk because they are not opioid users…they do not understand how an overdose happened,” Clawson added.

While fatal overdoses in Virginia fell in 2023, the White House NEMSIS tracker (National Emergency Medical Services Information System) follows non-fatal overdoses.

The City of Galax ranks seventh in the U.S. as of April 28 for its rate of non-fatal overdoses. Wythe, Giles, and Pulaski counties plus the cities of Roanoke, Martinsville, and Danville all ranked as having ‘much higher than average’ overdoses compared to the rest of the nation.

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However, the death toll falling is a win.

Clawson attributes the decline in fatalities in Virginia to increased access to and new attitudes toward overdose reversing Naloxone.

“Our participants were able to reverse 1,330 overdoses last year,” Clawson said about the Coalition. “That’s 1,330 people that are not on that statistic.”

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