Drug overdoses and deaths on the rise in Surry
Substance use events and associated overdose deaths rose in Surry County in 2021, year-end statistics released by local emergency service officials show – and the coronavirus pandemic is blamed .
Deaths have risen from 30 in 2020 to 44 last year, the highest number recorded for Surry since 2017, when a staggering 55 overdose deaths occurred before Narcan was widely used as an antidote to overdoses.
The total number of substance use events also rose to 529 in 2021 from 503 the previous year, statistics show. The 2021 annual total was the highest in the five-year period from 2017 to 2021.
The biggest spike in this activity occurred from 2019-21, according to Surry County Emergency Services Manager Eric Southern, a period spanning the advent of COVID-19 and its long list of lingering problems.
“Deaths in the county also increased during this time,” Southern said.
He said the signs point to COVID-related restrictions being a causal factor in the recovery.
“The coronavirus pandemic has certainly had an impact on local and national numbers, including overdoses and substance use-related deaths,” Surry County substance abuse recovery director Mark Willis acknowledged, citing a range of related issues.
“Statistics in these categories have increased, likely due to increased isolation, which can affect mental health issues, especially in people who already have mental health issues,” Willis added.
“Other factors that may have contributed to the increase in these numbers include higher unemployment, lower incomes, transportation issues and different illegal drugs that have been introduced by vendors.”
Mount Airy Police Chief Dale Watson, who is also closely monitoring the local overdose situation, said another aggravating factor involves restricted access to resources such as counseling and other care during the pandemic. .
“So without those resources, they’re more likely to start using again,” Watson said of those who might have successfully managed their addiction before COVID.
Narcan remains a key
Southern also referenced another notable finding in last year’s figures, involving the continued heavy reliance on Narcan, the brand name for naloxone, a drug that blocks respiratory depression and other effects of opioids, especially in overdose. It can be administered by laypersons, which means professional medical help may not be sought when it occurs.
The director of emergency services says known cases of Narcan administered by family members/bystanders totaled 72 in 2021, up from just 17 doses the year before and 14 in 2019.
A total of 261 Narcan doses are reported for the county in 2021, reflecting incremental increases each year over a five-year period from 131 in 2017. These include those administered by Surry EMS paramedics, law enforcement or other public safety personnel in addition to lay people.
The use of Narcan has been seen as obscuring the true number of overdose cases in Surry, because if a parent, for example, successfully revives an overdose victim using this drug, the incident might go unreported and so stay out of the books.
Substance use events reflected in published official statistics include those in which local emergency service personnel were involved, as compiled by Compliance Officer Eddie Jordan.
“It just shows the data that we see,” Southern explained.
Alcohol “leads” the way
“The biggest substances we see are alcohol and heroin,” Southern observed, “with opioids and methamphetamine still being used a lot.”
Willis, the county’s substance abuse recovery director, says the “menu” has included some recent additions.
“Introducing the new illegal drugs to the already vulnerable population of people with substance use disorders, during a period of increased isolation, is obviously never good,” he said. “Unfortunately, once the effects of an illicit drug have been studied and understood, a new one always seems to emerge.”
Despite last year’s increases, Southern suggests there is reason for hope, including progress made by a county drug task force program.
Willis said a promising development is the previously reported addition of a transport network to address the lack of mobility. “And our response team and peer support specialists are doing a great job of helping patients get the help they need.”
Police Chief Watson hopes a return to normal from COVID will make another difference in that regard. “We hope that with fewer restrictions there will be more resources available.”
“The vicious cycle of illegal drug use that has plagued Surry County and many other counties will continue to be a problem until we implement an effective recovery-oriented system of care for related disorders. to substance use that focuses on all aspects of prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery,” Willis said.
Tom Joyce can be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.