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Drug overdoses raise alarm, bring calls for treatment

SoVaNow.com / September 10, 2020
A spike in drug overdoses in Halifax County — including six possible drug-related deaths since January — has alarmed local law enforcement and behavioral health officials who are urging members of the public to seek out help for substance abuse as needed.

“Our first responders are finding overdose victims in people’s homes and on the streets of our community,” said Capt. Dennis W. Barker of the South Boston Police Department.

“It’s become almost commonplace to find individuals passed out in their vehicles, on a sidewalk or alongside a road. We have even had instances where individuals suffering from the effects of illegal drugs are exhibiting dangerous behaviors, such as jumping on cars in parking lots or running into oncoming traffic on the highways.”

Local police, Southside Behavioral Health (formerly Southside Community Services Board) and Sentara Behavioral Health Services and Specialists are working together to make the public aware of treatment options for drug addiction and abuse, including drug overdoses.

Virginia has what is known as a “Good Samaritan” law that shields a person from prosecution when they report in good faith a drug overdose to police, firefighters, EMT personnel or 911 dispatchers, as long as the person remains at the scene and cooperates with authorities. The law extends to those who report their own overdoses.

Since Jan. 1, Halifax County public health and public safety agencies have fielded 64 calls for drug overdose emergencies. Overdoses are suspected in six deaths in Halifax County so this year. Barker said a Virginia State Police database shows that overdoses in Halifax are occurring at twice the rate experienced last year.

“It’s definitely an uptick,” he said.

Rising use of heroin appears to be the driving force behind the overdose crisis, along with a synthetic marijuana mixture known as K2 or Spice. Heroin is especially dangerous because it is frequently combined with Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl’s potency greatly increases the risk of overdose and death among heroin users.

Opioid overdoses, including with Fentanyl, can be effectively reversed with Naxalone, also known by product name Narcan. Southside Behavioral Health offers regular REVIVE! Training sessions to instruct community providers on the safe use of Narcan. Two sessions are coming up this month, on Sept. 22 and 29.

Barker speculated that with heroin usage becoming more commonplace, the overdose crisis is tied to the ease with which dealers can lace heroin with Fentanyl. “With heroin, you can mix it with so many drugs … That leads to a lot of the overdoses we see, especially the possible deaths we’re looking into.”

In the first six months of 2020, two deaths have been confirmed in Mecklenburg County from fatal heroin overdoses. Two more deaths have been confirmed in Charlotte County. During the same period of 2019, neither county reported any drug overdose deaths, according to data compiled by Virginia State Police from local law enforcement agencies and local hospitals.

Why Halifax County has been hit so hard this year remains something of a mystery. Beth Englehorn, executive director of Southside Behavioral Health, lead provider of substance abuse treatment services in Halifax, Mecklenburg and Brunswick counties, said the drug overdose crisis appears to be most acute in Halifax County and the Pittsylvania-Danville area.

“We haven’t gotten a big increase in Mecklenburg and Brunswick,” she said.

Englehart speculated that the problem could be tied to “bad batches” of heroin on the streets, adding, “there are no good batches.” She said there’s no evidence that overdoses are rising as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impact on the mental and emotional health of residents.

“We have not seen an increase in the number of emergency services calls [for mental health crises] since covid started,” she said. “That’s sort of what I go by — if we’ve had an increase in calls to our emergency services or hospitalizations.”

Regardless of the causes for the surge in overdoses, Englehorn said her agency wants to convey a consistent message to the public: “We don’t really care where people go for services, as long as they get help. We’re always going to refer people to where they can be best served. It’s always a community effort.”

Southside Behavioral Services, or SCSB, is located at 424 Hamilton Boulevard in South Boston, with other offices in Mecklenburg and Brunswick. Services provided by the agency include treatment for opioid addiction, medication therapy, counseling, case management and other support services for behavioral health issues including drug and alcohol abuse. To obtain further information and to talk with someone about available help, call 833-272-2778.

Sentara Behavioral Health Services and Specialists, a part of Sentara Halifax Hospital, offers behavioral and medical services that include partial hospitalization, intensive outpatient treatment, step-down, individual and family counseling, and medication management to help clients manage addiction. For additional information call 434-517-3651.

Another option for persons battling addiction — and who have criminal cases pending in Halifax County courts — is enlistment in the Halifax County Drug Court Program. Drug Court redirects low-level offenders from the criminal justice system to a suite of services designed to help substance abusers in getting their lives back on track. Defendants who interested in this program can speak with their defense lawyers about their desire to enter the program. Halifax County Drug Court is directed by the Halifax / Pittsylvania Court Services, which can be reached at 434-476-1183.



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