Why are opioid overdoses rising in Fairfax County?

Opioid overdoses in Fairfax County, Virginia, are rising in part because of the cost and accessibility of counterfeit pills that are often laced with fentanyl, county leaders said during a recent committee meeting.

The counterfeit pills usually look like prescription drugs, Lt. Kevin White with Fairfax County Police’s Overdose Investigations Unit said at a Safety and Security Committee meeting. Fentanyl in the shape of prescription medicines is what police are discovering the most in their investigations, he said.

A few years ago, White said, counterfeit pills with fentanyl and other substances cost $30 each. But now, they’re selling for $10.

“That increased availability, that decrease in the cost has contributed to the increase in non-fatal and fatal overdoses in this county,” White said.

There were 404 non-fatal opioid overdoses in the county in 2023, compared to 304 in 2022, according to county data. From January through September 2023, there were 89 fatal opioid overdoses. In all of 2022, there were 88 fatal opioid overdoses.

Now, Fairfax County leaders are working on awareness campaigns involving multiple departments in response to the concerning trends. Part of that work includes collaborating with Fairfax County Public Schools, because of an increase in youth overdoses. Ellen Volo, the county’s Opioid and Substance Use Task Force Coordinator, called that data a “major concern.”

“The counterfeit pills that include fentanyl, it’s impossible to know how much is in them,” Volo said. “Even the tiniest amount of fentanyl can be deadly. It’s a really big concern, and something that we want all community members to be aware of.”

The task force, which includes 15 county agencies, is collaborating to address the rise in overdoses. Between fiscal 2023 and 2025, Fairfax County has set goals to reduce deaths from opioids and improve the quality of life for people impacted by opioid use disorder, according to county documents.

Some that work, Volo said, includes using opioid settlement money. About $260,000 has been allocated for a prevention campaign within the school district, and some is being used toward the county’s jail-based medication for opioid use disorder program.

Additional money, Volo said, is being used to hire another coordinator for Fairfax drug court, “so that there can be a track specifically created for individuals 18 to 25 years old.”

When police are in contact with someone who experienced a non-deadly overdose, White said, there’s a system in place in which “we can refer them to the county, county agencies, our partners, and get them on a path to recovery and treatment.”

White also touted department’s efforts in helping with successful prosecutions.

“We have over the past few years found through our investigations with our DEA partners, we have had drug dealers sentenced to 20 years, 22 years, 30 years in some instances,” White said. “We are finding some success. When we prosecute them and we bring these charges locally, we are finding that we’re getting up to 12-year sentences as well.”

As part of the school district’s response to the rise in overdoses, Superintendent Michelle Reid will send a notification to the school community whenever there’s a suspected overdose involving a Fairfax County student. That’s part of a new requirement under an executive order that Gov. Glenn Youngkin signed last year.

It applies to fatal and non-fatal overdoses, according to Mike Axler, the school district’s director of intervention and prevention services. The school division’s safety and security office will verify the overdose with police, “to the extent possible, before sending out a community notification,” Axler said.

But, Axler said, “there are legal restrictions on the FCPD for sharing student information related to incidents that occur outside of school, which may hinder our ability to verify off-campus incidents.”

Generally, Volo said some people aren’t aware of how prevalent fentanyl in the community is, making awareness campaigns crucial.

“It’s still something that people respond to by saying, ‘I had no idea that this was out, that it’s so widely available and accessible, I had no idea that these pills really do look authentic, like identical to prescription pills,'” Volo said.

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Scott Gelman

Scott Gelman is a digital editor and writer for WTOP. A South Florida native, Scott graduated from the University of Maryland in 2019. During his time in College Park, he worked for The Diamondback, the school’s student newspaper.

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