Fatal drug overdoses have spiked recently in the Roanoke Valley, just as localities prepare to spend millions of dollars in opioid settlement money to tackle the crisis.
Participants in the Virginia Harm Reduction Coalition have reported seven people died of overdoses in the last 30 days, according to executive director Danny Clawson. That compares to 11 deaths in all of last year reported to the coalition, which provides anti-overdose drugs and other services to people in active addiction.
While the coalition does not track every fatal overdose — there were 92 in Roanoke over the first nine months of last year, according to health department data — the number of deaths being reported to volunteers is unusual, Clawson said.
“It’s not just an uptick in overdoses,” she said. “It’s an uptick in fatal overdoses that we have not seen previously.”
As Roanoke Valley communities grapple with the continued fallout of the opioid epidemic, cities and counties must soon decide how to use settlement money from corporations that helped fuel the crisis.
Roanoke City expects to receive roughly $575,000 by this summer, with another $463,000 flowing to Roanoke County and $243,00 to Salem, according to figures from Virginia’s Opioid Abatement Authority. Annual payments, at various amounts, will continue through 2039.
All told, Roanoke City is anticipating at least $3 million by the end of the settlement payouts, which come from pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors.
Roanoke City Manager Bob Cowell told members of City Council Tuesday that the city must tell the authority by May 5 how it will spend the dollars coming in this year.
“That will be coming up very soon,” he said. “We will continue to rely upon the Collective Response blueprint as our guide.”
The Collective Response of the Roanoke Valley, a coalition aimed at curbing the opioid and drug epidemic, released a blueprint in 2020 with recommendations for prevention, treatment and recovery.
Robert Natt was named the director of the Collective Response, which operates under the Roanoke Valley Roanoke Valley-Alleghany Regional Commission, last week.
“I'm particularly focused on engagement and collaboration,” he said in an email. “We hope to provide significant support to localities in coming months and invite others to join in the meaningful work of cross-sector collaboration and fostering community connections that save lives each day.”
He said some funding priorities — identified with partner groups in the wake of Covid-19 — include increasing the number of peer recovery specialists in the region; strengthening access to treatment; and improving recovery services, such as transitional housing and workforce training.
Cowell said he believes some of the settlement money will be directed to keep the Collective Response staffed, which is currently compensated through pandemic relief funds.
In addition to regional collaborations, Cowell said he has been in talks with the fire department and police department about their ideas for the settlement money.
Mayor Sherman Lea on Tuesday asked Cowell if the city gets frequent reports on people who die of overdoses, as city staff and Council do when a homicide occurs.
The health department collects that data, but it is reported in aggregate, Cowell said.
“I’ve actually used this statistic before, that the number of folks who pass away in our community from overdoses and the number of folks who pass away in our community due to suicide both exceed the number of people that are impacted by individual gun violence,” Cowell said.
Lea said he asked about whether City Council could get that information because recently met a woman who asked if the mayor knew her son had died the previous weekend of an overdose. He had not heard.
“Those numbers are quite high,” Lea said. “It’s tragic.”
City Council discussed the issue Tuesday as it approved Roanoke’s participation in a proposed settlement against the companies Teva, Allergan, Walmart, Walgreens and CVS for their role in the epidemic.
Virginia is expected to receive more than $425 million in that settlement. The Opioid Abatement Authority will then distribute funds to localities through a formula used in prior settlements.
Clawson said she is “cautiously optimistic” with the authority, which held a town hall meeting recently in Roanoke.
“I think everybody going into that meeting was very skeptical that this is just going to be another group of disconnected people that don't really understand what's going on in the ground and aren't really committed to evidence based intervention, but that very much doesn't seem to be the case.” she said.
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