Public Health Emergency declared for Virginia's opioid crisis

13News Now Janet Roach has the story

RICHMOND, Va. (WVEC) -- Virginia is now allowing anyone in the state to buy naloxone, an opioid overdose treatment drug, without a prescription.

The announcement comes as Governor Terry McAuliffe, along with Virginia's state health commissioner, declared a Public Health Emergency for Virginia's opioid addiction crisis.

This declaration comes in response to the growing number of overdoses attributed to opioid use, and evidence that Carfentanil -- a highly dangerous synthetic opioid used to sedate large animals such as elephants -- has made its way its way into Virginia.

A Public Health Emergency is an event, either natural or manmade, that creates a health risk to the public.

SEE ALSO: Hooked on Heroin - Virginia's Growing Killer

State Health Commissioner Dr. Marissa J. Levine has issued a standing order that allows all Virginians to obtain the drug Naloxone, which can be used to treat narcotic overdoses in emergency situations.

The standing order serves as a prescription written for the general public, rather than specifically for an individual, removing a barrier to access.

Some pharmacies in Virginia already provide naloxone without a prescription, but Levine says she wants to make sure the opioid overdose antidote is available throughout the state as opioid-related deaths continue to rise.

"It just became clear that there were continued gaps, as well as the increase in deaths, so we really needed to do something," Levine said.

More: McAuliffe announces website to fight opioid abuse

The number of opioid-related fatal overdoses has been climbing steadily in recent years. There were 801 heroin and prescription drug deaths in Virginia last year, up from 541 in 2012.

Currently, three Virginians die of drug overdoses every day on average. The number of emergency department visits due to heroin overdose has increased 89 percent for the first months of this year compared to last year.

Several other states have recently enacted similar laws and policies allowing pharmacies to sell naloxone, known by the brand name Narcan, without prescriptions.

Another reason Levine said she was moved to declare a public health emergency is the recent discovery of carfentanil, a synthetic opioid used to sedate elephants, being used in Virginia. Levine said carfentanil, which is 10,000 more potent than morphine, was found by authorities in two separate incidents.

Though Levine's declaration of a public health emergency has no force of law, she said she hopes it spurs a greater awareness of the state's opioid crisis during this week's Thanksgiving celebrations and beyond.

It can be difficult to know what to do when someone close to you is facing addiction, but Governor McAuliffe's office offers the following things every Virginian can do to help those around them:

  1. Know the signs of addiction and substance use: Signs of recent opioid use include pinpoint pupils, sleepiness, “nodding” and scratching. Common signs of addiction include constant money problems; arrests; track marks and infections from needle use; lying about drug use; irritability and, when drugs can’t be obtained, physical withdrawal symptoms such as shaking, dilated pupils, nausea, diarrhea and vomiting.
  2. Talk to your loved ones: If you suspect that your friend or family member is struggling with addiction and substance use, talk with them. The state’s new website VaAware (http://vaaware.com/treatment-recovery/) offers resources on how to best discuss addiction with someone you love.
  3. Properly dispose of medications: If you have unused, expired or unwanted medications and need a way to safely dispose of them, you can now get a drug disposal bag from your Local Health Department. The bags allow for you to safely deactivate and dispose of medications in the privacy of your own home. Additionally, you may return unwanted prescription drugs for destruction to one of the authorized pharmacies listed at www.dhp.virginia.gov/pharmacy/destructionsites.asp. Some local law enforcement agencies also collect and destroy unwanted drugs.
  4. Obtain Naloxone: If someone in your life is struggling with opioid addiction, visit your local pharmacist to obtain Naloxone and keep it on hand for possible overdose emergencies. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an overdose that is caused by an opioid drug (i.e. prescription pain medication or heroin). When administered during an overdose, naloxone blocks the effects of opioids on the brain and restores breathing within two to eight minutes. Naloxone has been used safely by medical professionals for more than 40 years and has only one function: to reverse the effects of opioids on the brain and respiratory system in order to prevent death. Family members and friends can access this medication by obtaining a prescription from their family doctor or by visiting a participating pharmacy that can dispense the drug using the standing order issued by Dr. Levine. More information on Naloxone can be found at www.getnaloxonenow.org.
  5. Learn more: DBHDS provides Opioid Overdose and Naloxone Education (OONE) to professionals, stakeholders and others through their REVIVE! program. Learn more about REVIVE! at www.dbhds.virginia.gov/individuals-and-families/substance-abuse/revive.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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