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Virginia spends millions on opioid overdose antidote, but the death toll keeps rising

Ryan Riggs should be dead.

He’s overdosed on heroin at least a dozen times, he said, and has been revived by naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids like heroin and prescription painkillers, so many times he’s lost count.

The antidote wasn’t a cure, but it gave the now 38-year-old father of two the chance to turn his life around after struggling for most of it with a heroin addiction that started at age 17.

Now clean for just over four years, Riggs helps others whose lives have been derailed by drugs or jail as a social work case manager at the REAL Life Community Center in downtown Richmond. He keeps a sheet inside his desk that shows eight of his 15 mug shots for arrests at the Richmond City Jail.

JAMES H. WALLACE/TIMES-DISPATCH  

Ryan Riggs, a social work case manager at Richmond’s REAL Life Community Center, has been revived with Narcan many times after overdosing. He now carries the drug with him at all times in case he needs to administer it to someone else.

A family photo on the wall tells two stories — the smiling faces are a reminder of both the time his young daughter found him overdosed in the bathroom and the progress he later made to become a father who coaches youth sports, owns a home and commits himself to his and others’ recovery.

But none of that would have happened without the antidote that’s given him at least nine extra lives. Riggs isn’t alone: Naloxone, commonly referred to by the brand name Narcan, has kept thousands of people alive in the region.

Millions of dollars worth of naloxone has been distributed across Virginia in the past three years and, yet, evidence at every level says it’s not enough.

By the end of the year, regional EMS personnel across 31 localities in central Virginia are on pace to use more than 10,000 doses of naloxone in the past five years — greater than the number of people who have died from overdose in the state in the last decade.

The Virginia Department of Health has spent more than $1.9 million dispensing the drug since late 2016, almost three times what it spends on all other harm reduction services combined. Hospitals spend more on naloxone than any other drug when stocking EMS agencies’ drug boxes; emergency personnel in the 9,000-square-mile region that encompasses the Richmond area and stretches south to the state line administered a record 2,977 doses in 2018.

But figures through the first three months of 2019 show Virginia is on pace to record its highest opioid overdose death toll since it began tracking the grim figure in 2007. In a state that has long struggled with expanding addiction services enough to meet the rising need, naloxone is likely among the biggest reasons the death toll hasn’t spiraled higher.

Laurie Forlano, the VDH commissioner for population health, said the simultaneous rise in naloxone use coupled with no real reduction in opioid overdose deaths speaks to how complex the crisis is, with no one solution. She sees the saturation of naloxone as managing people’s health — allowing them another shot at recovery.

“Naloxone has saved lives. I know it has,” she said. “We’re trying to meet the need, but I’m actually not sure if we’re meeting the full need yet. But we’re doing the best we can.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report last monthAugust analyzing the surge in naloxone prescriptions — which doubled from 2017 to 2018 — and the slight downtick in deaths from opioid overdoses over the same time period nationally. Researchers came to two principal conclusions — the decline in opioid deaths can be linked to greater access to naloxone, and dispensing levels are still inadequate.

The CDC report pointed out that states with naloxone accessibility policies like Virginia were seeing the greatest results, and recommended naloxone co-prescription, which Virginia was the first state to implement.

JAMES H. WALLACE/TIMES-DISPATCH 

Ryan Riggs, a case manager with Real Life, says he has been revived with Narcan on numerous occasions after he overdosed. He now carries the drug with him at all times in case he needs to administer it to someone else. Riggs also keeps a copy of his arrest mugs in his desk drawer, the youngest photo from when he was 22-years-old.

Virginia was also named as one of the states experiencing the highest county-level naloxone prescribing rates, with 11 of the 30 counties with the highest rates in the country. The state falls into the middle of the pack in terms of opioid overdose death rates, with the 27th highest rate out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia, according to 2017 data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Riggs said he’s lucky to be alive — in a few cases, he overdosed but friends were too afraid to take him to a hospital, dumping him somewhere and leaving him to wake up on his own. Riggs knows people who weren’t so lucky.

He now carries a kit of the nasal spray wherever he goes. He hasn’t had to use it yet, but he knows his supply has saved lives. After hearing that a bad batch of heroin was causing overdoses, he dropped his kit off with a friend and restocked it when needed. That friend is alive and clean today, he said.

“I was Narcan’d all them times,” Riggs said. “Because I decided to go back and start using, does that mean the Narcan wasn’t a success? No. It means that I’m alive long enough to give myself a chance. That’s all it does — and that’s worth it.”

***

Since Nov. 21, 2016, when then-state health commissioner Dr. Marissa Levine declared a public health emergency regarding the opioid crisis in Virginia, the state Department of Health has spent $1.9 million on Narcan, with more than $300,000 worth being sent to Richmond-area health districts in the past 2½ years. The Old Dominion Emergency Medical Services Alliance that serves the 31-locality area spends more on naloxone than it does on any other drug, and is on pace to spend $66,995 in 2019, nearly seven times as much as four years ago.

Virginia Commonwealth University Health System has spent $280,000 on naloxone in the past two years, and the Bon Secours Health System has spent over $147,000 for its five hospitals and four pharmacies since 2016.

The General Assembly approved $1.6 million this year in additional funds to be sent to the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services to put on training classes to use naloxone and to buy more doses for the 2020 fiscal year, after starting from a budget of $10,000 for an initial pilot project in 2014.

For Narcan, which is sold by Emergent Biosolutions, the Department of Health gets special pricing for its two-dose kits of $75, a 40% discount from the $125 retail price.

Jordan Rennie, the program coordinator at the regional EMS alliance, said the generic form of naloxone used by EMS agencies is the second-most expensive drug that goes into the boxes, behind only blood sugar-increasing glucagon, at a current rate of $24.75 per vial.

Hospitals buy naloxone in various forms, making their prices vary wildly — the average price of a unit at Bon Secours has been about $15 over the past three years, while VCU Health System’s is around $155, according to figures from the hospitals.

Forlano said the costs are one indication of how seriously the commonwealth is taking the opioid crisis, which has claimed the lives of more 9,100 people in Virginia since the state began tracking overdose deaths in 2007, and how critical naloxone accessibility and affordability are to the state’s efforts.

kdemeria / KATIE DEMERIA/Times-Dispatch 

Forlano

Services for addiction need more money across the board to keep up with the still-growing epidemic, she said. Rising death rates began with pain pills prescribed liberally across the state and nation, but tighter restrictions on the legal drugs opened up the market for heroin and even more deadly fentanyl.

Forlano acknowledges there’s still a great need for services like treatment capacity, which is far more expensive and complicated than a dose of naloxone, which works in the moment but does nothing to address the underlying addiction.

Virginia and localities hit hardest by the opioid epidemic are suing opioid manufacturers alongside other states seeking billions in damages that could eventually help pay for treatment, but unless there’s a settlement, it could take years to wind through the courts. Last week, a judge in Oklahoma ordered Johnson & Johnson to pay $572 million for its role in distributing prescription painkillers there, the first ruling of its kind in the country. Oklahoma was seeking $17 billion, but the state won’t see any cash until the appeals process ends.

Some budgets in the region are feeling the strain of keeping up with the demand for naloxone as others rely heavily on federal grants. Emily Westerholm manages the harm reduction program at Health Brigade, a free clinic in Richmond. In January, Health Brigade received a grant from the VDH to buy $57,000 worth of Narcan, or 776 kits. By mid-August, they’d already given out 590, leaving Westerholm worried about finding the money for more when they run out.

“We hate to think we started this trajectory and that we would not be able to continue to offer this to our folks, especially when you tell them they can walk in and get them, but it’s just so incredibly expensive,” Westerholm said. “It’s just not realistic. We get a slightly reduced rate, but not by much. ... I would just love it if it could be cheaper and more accessible to our region, because it works.”

***

Wes Wampler, a captain in the Richmond Ambulance Authority, said administering naloxone is one of an emergency medical service provider’s first steps for any report of a person being unresponsive or struggling to breathe.

“It’s literally life or death in many situations,” he said. “[Naloxone] can be the difference between somebody getting up and talking to you and saying they made a mistake and they need rehab or they need help to overcome the overdose. Unfortunately, we get a lot of cases where they aren’t that fortunate and they can lose their life.”

In 2018, 1,215 people died of an opioid overdose in Virginia, compared to 1,230 in 2017 — the first time since 2012 that the number of deaths dropped, albeit only slightly. But progress may be fleeting — the first quarter of 2019 was the second deadliest for overdose deaths on record in the state, putting Virginia on pace to lose a record 1,296 lives to opioids this year even as naloxone use surges.

Virginia Department of Health  

Fentanyl and heroin outpaced prescription painkillers as the most deadly opioids starting in 2015, and the epidemic has continued to take more and more lives.

EMS personnel in the 31-locality region covered by the Old Dominion EMS Alliance have gone from using an estimated 402 vials in 2015 to a projected 2,706 in 2019, a nearly seven-fold increase. Part of that is due to increasing availability through grants, Rennie said — hospitals buy the vials of naloxone for the drug boxes, allowing regional EMS agencies, particularly volunteer ones that may not otherwise be able to afford it, to access the drug at no cost.

In Richmond and its neighboring counties, the number of patients on whom EMS personnel have used naloxone has increased 72%, on average, from the time each agency started tracking.

Wampler said that in Richmond, the RAA has always dealt with overdoses, but he believes naloxone has had to be deployed more frequently because of the increasing potency of street drugs, which are being cut with synthetics like fentanyl, which is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, and carfentanil, which is 100 times stronger than fentanyl. Drugs that potent kill more quickly and in some cases require multiple doses of naloxone before the patient is revived.

The ambulance authority is trying to develop a drone program to deliver naloxone to the scene of overdoses and on Friday announced a partnership with the Richmond City Health District that focuses on helping people who’ve overdosed enter treatment.

Local police departments are beginning to carry Narcan as well, for cases in which they arrive before EMS. Richmond and Henrico County police are in the early stages of obtaining and mandating it, while police in Chesterfield and Hanover counties have been carrying it since 2018.

But putting the drug in the hands of first responders has its limits.

Rosie Hobron, an epidemiologist who tracks drug deaths for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said 80% to 85% of opioid overdose deaths occur in homes, where either no naloxone was present or the person was alone.

Naloxone is also prescribed alongside painkillers, thanks to a 2017 state law mandating it in an attempt to make sure it’s available to anyone who might need it. The number of prescriptions of Narcan filled has risen every quarter since the Virginia Department of Health Professions began tracking in mid-2018 — 19,474 prescriptions were filled just between April 1 and June 30 of this year.

But even that strategy misses many opioid users as the epidemic has morphed: Since the start of 2018, prescription painkillers have been blamed in just two out of every five deaths, with the rest caused by illicit fentanyl and heroin.

***

JOE MAHONEY  

Kate Bausman of the Richmond City Health Department demonstrates the proper procedures for administering Narcan during an open dispensing for Richmonders to get free boxes of Narcan, antidote to opioid overdose. The event was held at the Richmond City Health District.

Kate Bausman is the special response coordinator at the Richmond City Health District, where she runs REVIVE! training classes where participants learn to use Narcan and receive a free box. Bausman oversees the agency’s twice-a-month Narcan dispensing and sets up booths at local health fairs and community events in an effort to get the lifesaving drug into as many hands as possible.

Learning to use Narcan is equivalent to learning CPR, she said, with the difference being that spraying Narcan into someone’s nose is much easier than performing chest compressions. So far, she has given away 2,367 boxes, each of which contains two doses of the nasal spray. The drug can also be given through a needle.

“Carrying Narcan isn’t just for people that are around or could potentially be around people that are using illegal drugs,” Bausman said. “I personally think it’s for everybody, and at the very least, it’s for people who are around anyone that are using any type of opioids for any reason.”

Bausman said she’s heard of REVIVE! participants finding overdosed people in bathrooms and parking lots and reviving people with the Narcan they received at training.

Patsy Tucker, a Colonial Heights resident in long-term recovery, attended a REVIVE! training in early August, and now keeps the Narcan she received in her car at all times. Having witnessed overdoses, she wanted to ensure she’s always equipped to potentially reverse them.

“Things are a lot different from back when I used to use,” she said. “Carfentanil is really strong. And fentanyl. It’s killing you — just a couple pieces of dust of it. It’s just scary to see people are just dying, dropping like flies. I just want to be able to save people, if it’s possible.”

JOE MAHONEY/times-dispatch  

Kate Bausman of the Richmond City Health District shows Carolyn Frey (left) and Lisa Straub, both of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Institute for Drug and Alcohol Studies, how to administer Narcan. Bausman runs REVIVE! training classes where participants learn to use Narcan and oversees the agency’s twice-a-month dispensing.

Through 2018, the VDH had distributed 16,500 kits. Just over midway through 2019, it had already distributed about 10,500, putting the department on pace to distribute more this year than all previous years combined.

Richmond, Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield have received nearly 4,000 kits from the VDH since 2017.

Dr. Melissa Viray, who oversees health districts in Richmond and Henrico, said those numbers reflect a “pretty big push in the Richmond metro area with regards to naloxone.”

In Henrico in particular, Viray said the need for programming related to the opioid crisis “cannot be understated” and that the department has been rolling out a variety of new programming and training to get naloxone into as many hands as possible. She’s planning to request more Narcan — not because she’s seeing a rise in the need, but because the health districts are still trying to meet the existing need.

“We’re not seeing the end of the epidemic or fatal overdoses,” Viray said. “So we are trying to push this out into the community as much as we can.”

***

No one expects spending on naloxone to dip in the near future, another indicator that there’s no end in sight to the opioid crisis.

In Richmond alone, the VDH has spent $191,240 since 2017, with 2019 spending already eclipsing that of past years. Health Brigade spent about $57,000 for its supply of Narcan that will soon need to be replenished.

Despite the sticker price, Bausman said Narcan is seen as the affordable brand of naloxone; Evzio, a naloxone autoinjector created by Richmond-based Kaléo Pharmaceuticals, cost over $4,000 at one point.

Thom Duddy, Emergent Biosolutions’ vice president of corporate communications, said the company is committed to responsible pricing. Since Emergent purchased Adapt Pharmaceuticals, the original manufacturer, in 2018, the price of Narcan has never been raised. It offers free boxes to high schools, libraries and YMCAs all over the country. The company’s revenues in the fourth quarter of 2018, the first one after acquiring Narcan, were up 40% from the same period in 2017, a testament to the drug’s profitability.

Duddy said Narcan is covered by 97% of all insurers, including Medicare and Medicaid, and that the average co-pay in a retail pharmacy is $13.

But for the uninsured, a situation many people struggling with addiction find themselves in, the $125 retail price is unfeasible, said Health Brigade’s Westerholm. The sticker price still creates a strain for providers whose patients and clients depend on Narcan being free.

Rennie said the naloxone that goes into ambulance drug boxes are vials that cost about $24.75 each. That makes it the second-most expensive drug in the kit, and among the most frequently used, making it the greatest expense. Rennie said the price has bounced between $23 and $25 over the past five years. On average, spending on naloxone has increased 85% per year since 2015.

With the demand in Virginia unmet and still growing, the VDH spending is likely to continue rising if it meets its commitment to making the drug affordable and available. In 2017, the VDH spent $86,300 in Richmond, Henrico, Hanover and Chesterfield. Through the middle of 2019, it’s now at $116,180 for the year.

Sheila Vakharia, a researcher with advocacy organization Drug Policy Alliance, said that while she appreciates that Emergent offers discounted prices, the drug is still too costly. When localities struggle to fund no-cost naloxone, the highest-risk users, such as individuals who are homeless or recently out of jail, are the most impacted, she said.

Forlano, with the state health department, said any public health agency struggles with funding, and the department could use more — not just for Narcan, but for all forms of harm reduction. The $3.4 million in state and federal funds that the DBHDS and the VDH will receive for the next two fiscal years will keep the VDH from dipping into its operating budget for now.

Naloxone is by far the agency’s biggest harm reduction expense. The VDH has spent $640,000 on all other programs — including syringe services, STD and HIV testing, referrals to services and health education risk reduction — at its four harm reduction facilities combined, almost a third of what’s spent on naloxone. Diana Jordan, the director of disease prevention at the VDH, said the discrepancy speaks to just how high a priority naloxone accessibility is.

The VDH’s central pharmacy budget, which is approved by the General Assembly and pays for drugs like naloxone, has nearly tripled from $574,263 for the 2017 fiscal year to $1,591,583 for 2020. The budget of the DBHDS for community substance abuse services, which encompasses a variety of harm reduction strategies, has expanded 27% since 2013, going from nearly $96 million to $121 million.

“We’re making a really good effort to get as much naloxone as we can afford out there at a no-cost model to the client,” Forlano said. “The commonwealth would like to get to the point where we’re preventing the overdose before it even happens — not treating the overdose with Narcan, but preventing it in the first place.”

Some people will be revived and will never get clean, Vakharia said, but that does not mean those lives are not worth saving. Some of those just need the time naloxone can buy to eventually pursue recovery.

With no data on how many patients are successfully revived but later relapse or die of an overdose, there’s no measure for how successful naloxone is as a treatment strategy past the moment it’s used. But harm reduction advocates say every affirming interaction with care enhances the chance an addict will continue to seek help.

“There’s this idea that if this person doesn’t care about their life, then why should we?” Vakharia said. “We need to challenge that belief by humanizing people who use drugs and acknowledging change is hard. So many people who overdose don’t want to overdose, but because of the adulteration in our current drug supply, are overdosing. We need to be using these opportunities for education, dispelling myths or increasing support.”

Vakharia said that as the cost of prescription medications becomes a national conversation, all stakeholders, from manufacturers to health departments, need to contend with the eventual reality of lack of funds.

“It’s great that states can afford to foot the bill for now, but at a certain point, when those federal funds dry up, how can states sustain and afford that kind of money?” Vakharia said. “We still need to have that conversation.”

***

Both providers and recovering addicts say naloxone is just the beginning in terms of treatment. But without it, there is no next step.

Virginia is on pace to lose 1,546 people to drug overdoses this year, and 1,296 of them will be due to opioids. As long as people continue to die unnecessarily, Vakharia said, no one should be patting themselves on the back for improving naloxone access.

Ryan Riggs has heard all the criticisms of naloxone: reviving someone enables further drug usage, addiction is a choice and even that the notion of survival of the fittest dictates not reviving someone. But he personally knows the impact it’s had on himself and others.

JAMES H. WALLACE/TIMES-DISPATCH 

Ryan Riggs, a case manager with Real Life, says he has been revived with Narcan on numerous occasions after he overdosed. He now carries the drug with him at all times in case he needs to administer it to someone else. Riggs also keeps a copy of his arrest mugs in his desk drawer, the youngest photo from when he was 22-years-old.

“I know 100 or more people that are in recovery right now, who have had similar walks as me, that have homes and careers and contribute positively to society,” Riggs said. “Without Narcan, they wouldn’t be there today.”

Hobron, with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, said naloxone has undoubtedly saved lives, even as the state is projected to lose a record amount of people to opioid overdoses. But until there’s a greater ability to commit to the more difficult tasks of systemic change in public health, from Forlano’s point of view, and a cleaning up of the drug supply, from Hobron’s, deaths seem inevitable.

“We’re still saving a lot of lives, and I would assume the use of Narcan is having an effect,” Hobron said. “Until we can stop fentanyl from coming in, I don’t think we’re going to have that significant of an impact.”


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With potential for gains, Democrats go on offense in Hampton Roads legislative races

VIRGINIA BEACH — Democratic candidates for the General Assembly in Hampton Roads are riding popular support for expanding Medicaid coverage for thousands of uninsured people.

“The things we stand for are what people want,” said Nancy Guy, who is challenging Republican Del. Chris Stolle of Virginia Beach, a doctor and a member of the House of Delegates since 2010.

But in this battleground region — the area of Virginia’s legislative map where Democrats potentially have the most to gain in November — Republicans, too, are focused on health care. Hampton Roads is a crucial area of the political map as Republicans try to hold on to their narrow majorities in the House and the Senate. All 140 legislative seats are up for election in November.

“Health care is why I got into politics,” said Stolle, who was among Republicans who joined Democrats last year in expanding Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act after years of Republican resistance. “It’s what has motivated me along the way, and I have always been in favor of increasing access to high-quality, affordable health care.”

Guy, a former Virginia Beach School Board member, attended high school with Stolle. Their matchup is among contests in the coastal, military-focused region where Democrats flipped two House seats in the 2017 wave that led to a 15-seat gain for their party.

This year, several Republicans in Hampton Roads, including Stolle, are in newly drawn districts that are less GOP-friendly. The mass shooting May 31 at the Virginia Beach Municipal Center, followed by mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, elevated firearms as an issue.

Republicans are playing some offense themselves, trying to win back the House seats they lost two years ago.

Democrats are reminding voters that Stolle previously was against expanding Medicaid, and Stolle said he’s taking this election seriously.

He’s already mailed at least four pieces of glossy literature to voters, and is among a handful of Republican delegates who launched TV ads far earlier this year than in a standard legislative election.

Among the key races is a contest for a Virginia Beach-based state Senate district that former Sen. Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach, vacated to join Gov. Ralph Northam’s administration.

Freshman Del. Cheryl Turpin, D-Virginia Beach, easily dispatched two Democrats in a primary while on the Republican side, former Navy pilot Jen Kiggans upset a primary opponent who had the backing of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and most elected Republicans in Virginia Beach.

In the city’s other Senate district, Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, faces a challenge from Democrat and fellow Navy veteran Missy Cotter Smasal.

***

A number of House of Delegates seats in Hampton Roads could be in play. Among them:

  • Stolle’s district shifted more than 12 points toward Democrats, according to the Virginia Public Access Project, following a court-ordered redistricting this year after the legislature was found to have unconstitutionally packed too many African American voters into certain districts, diluting their voting power.
  • On the Peninsula, Democrats want to upset Del. David Yancey, R-Newport News, who won a tie election in 2017 when his name was drawn from a bowl. Challenger Shelly Simonds is back, and faces Yancey in a more Democratic district because of the redistricting. Democrats expect to flip the Peninsula seat of retiring Del. Gordon Helsel, R-Poquoson, which shifted nearly 20 points more Democratic in the redistricting; Democrat Martha Mugler faces Republican Colleen Holcomb.
  • Turpin’s run for the Senate opens up her House district, which had long been held by Republicans until Turpin’s win in 2017. Former Del. Rocky Holcomb, the Republican she defeated, wants the seat back. He faces Alex Askew, a former legislative assistant to freshman Del. Jay Jones, D-Norfolk, who is unchallenged.
  • Republicans are on offense against Del. Kelly Convirs-Fowler, D-Virginia Beach, the other freshman from Hampton Roads who upset an incumbent Republican in 2017. Shannon Kane, a former member of the Virginia Beach City Council, is challenging Fowler in a district that became slightly more Republican in the redistricting.
  • On the western edge of Hampton Roads, Del. Chris Jones, R-Suffolk, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, faces a challenge from Democrat Clint Jenkins in a dramatically reconfigured district that is more than 27 points more Democratic. Like Stolle, Jones — who has hundreds of thousands in campaign money — went on TV early.

***

The mass shooting in Building 2 of the Virginia Beach Municipal Center plays a part in the re-election campaign of Del. Glenn Davis, R-Virginia Beach, a former city councilman who ran an unsuccessful dark horse campaign for the GOP lieutenant governor in 2017, and Democrat Karen Mallard, a public school teacher for 31 years.

Virginia Beach does not have a downtown like a traditional urban area. Much of the city looks and feels like suburbia. Besides the tourism of the Oceanfront and Chesapeake Bay, and its military bases, agriculture is prominent. Home to the Rev. Pat Robertson’s Regent University, Virginia Beach in 2014 was named in one report as the third most conservative city in America.

“People here are concerned about public education,” Mallard said from the office of the Virginia Beach Education Association, where her campaign office is located. “Virginia Beach has a world-class school system, and we want to keep it that way.”

Mallard was driving to the post office near the municipal center just before the shooting. She rushed home to check on a neighbor who was close to the complex when his supervisor radioed and told people not to come near because there was a shooter. Then she went to Princess Anne Middle School, where a reunification center was set up, and consoled a newer city employee who had moved to the area and who began crying when she learned one of her friends had died.

Mallard and other Democrats are hammering Davis and Republicans for quickly voting to adjourn a July special session on gun violence and to refer legislation to a commission for study.

Davis said he, too, wants to combat gun violence and wants sincere dialogue from both parties.

“I don’t believe protecting the Second Amendment and enhancing gun safety are mutually exclusive,” he said during an interview on the 32nd floor of the Westin Residences, where he leases a condo for his telecom business.

Davis said he supports expanding state law to require background checks before private gun sales at gun shows, but he defended the decision by GOP lawmakers not to take immediate action in the special session.

“It was proper to make sure that we took the time to read the bills, understand them, look for any unintended consequences, give a chance for the citizens of Virginia to give input ... hear from experts and then be able to make an informed vote,” he said.

***

President Donald Trump, who did not carry Virginia in 2016, has never had good approval ratings in the state. In a recent Roanoke College poll, 27% of voters approved of the way Trump was handling his job.

Republicans in Hampton Roads are aware of Trump’s influence in boosting Virginia Democrats, and are trying to counter it.

“People are tired of the vitriol and partisanship that is coming out of Washington, that is leaking into Richmond,” Davis said.

Jen Kiggans, the Republican candidate for the open Senate seat formerly held by Wagner, said she’s focusing her campaign on health care, the field she works in as an adult-geriatric nurse practitioner. Voters do talk about Trump, she said, and although she voted for him, she acknowledged in an interview at a Starbucks in her district that “he turned off a lot of women, a lot of minorities.”

“It’s frustrating to watch how we do politics these days,” she said. “People are just angry with the lack of civility.”

Turpin, a public school science teacher, has significantly outraised Kiggans so far; the Republican State Leadership Committee, which works to elect GOP candidates to down-ballot state-level offices around the country, sent $150,000 to Kiggans to help, according to VPAP. If the GOP has a net loss of one seat, Democrats will control the Senate next year.

The ongoing discussion about what to do with Building 2 — whether to tear down what was already an aging building, or renovate it — is part of what’s keeping the shooting in the public conscience, Turpin said in a recent breakfast interview at a diner in the district. She said she’s aware that Second Amendment rights are important to many voters in her city.

“I think this is still a Republican-leaning district, and it’s just a matter of getting people to turn out to vote,” she said.


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IndyCar racing will return to Richmond Raceway in 2020

After an 11-year hiatus, IndyCar will be returning to Richmond.

The open-wheel racing series announced Sunday that it will run a night race at the Richmond Raceway next year on June 27, the culmination of a “speed-themed weekend” at the track.

IndyCar, the series best-known for its annual Indianapolis 500, staged events in Richmond from 2001 to 2009. Richmond was the first track of less than 1 mile to host a race.

Tickets went on sale immediately after the announcement, with prices starting at $25.

The addition of IndyCar racing boosts the programming slate at the track, which recently completed a $30 million renovation. It also comes at a key time, given the uncertainty swirling around future NASCAR schedules. The stock car series, which has long been the biggest draw in Richmond, has indicated that the 2021 schedule will be a major shake-up of dates, times and tracks.

The 2020 NASCAR schedule has already been released, with Cup Series races on April 19 and Sept. 12.

Adding IndyCar back to the schedule gives fans another opportunity to visit the track.

“I’ve always been a big fan of Indy cars on short ovals. It’s some of the most exciting racing out there in my opinion,” driver Scott Dixon said in a promotional release. Dixon is the event’s defending champion, having won in 2009.

That 2009 race was a forgettable one — the series had modified its cars in a way that didn’t suit shorter tracks, and cars mostly proceeded in a single-file line from the start of the race to the finish.

Other years offered better entertainment, including a 2002 duel where Sam Hornish took the lead with just two laps remaining and held on to win.

IndyCar is a different series now than it was back then, and has successfully staged events at other short tracks in the past decade, including races with lots of passing at Iowa Speedway, which closely resembles Richmond.

“Richmond Raceway is proud to welcome IndyCar back to America’s Premier Short Track for the 2020 race season,” said track president Dennis Bickmeier in a release. “Richmond’s history in motorsports dates back to 1946, when the track hosted two AAA Championship Car events. After an 11-year absence, we look forward to the return of the NTT IndyCar Series to Richmond as part of a weekend festival built around speed.”

A formal announcement will take place Tuesday at the track with IndyCar representatives.


Hanover
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Sliding Hill Road construction project in Hanover County to begin Sept. 9

The long-awaited widening of a two-lane stretch of Sliding Hill Road in Hanover County will commence soon, but don’t expect the traffic problems there to be resolved until the end of next year.

With construction scheduled to begin Sept. 9, motorists traveling on Sliding Hill Road between Atlee Station Road and New Ashcake Road — which passes the Hanover Air Park off Interstate 95 — should expect intermittent delays through at least the next 16 months.

“During construction, which is expected to last until December 2020, the Department of Public Works urges drivers who use this section of Sliding Hill Road to consider alternate routes,” a county news release said.

County officials say the corridor is too narrow to adequately handle the approximately 16,000 cars the Virginia Department of Transportation says travel through the area every day, particularly during the morning and evening rush hours.

Analysis by a traffic consultant the county hired determined that there will be about 100 to 200 more cars traveling along Sliding Hill Road during the rush-hour periods by 2021, but traffic during those times is already a bog for commuters.

“Traffic has grown to the point that it’s slightly over capacity during peak hours,” said Hanover Public Works Director Mike Flagg.

Though many of the residents who live in the myriad residential developments south and east of the Air Park will theoretically be able to get home or to work faster once the job is complete, some neighbors worry it won’t improve traffic that much and that the more than yearlong project will be an inconvenience.

“I think the feeling is neutral at best,” said Jamie Ledwith, the chairman of the Hanover Chamber of Commerce’s Air Park Division and a county resident who has lived near the corridor for about 20 years. “I think a lot of people are seeing a lot of inconvenience for something they don’t see a benefit in.”

Ledwith said other road projects in the area in recent years helped businesses in the Air Park to some degree, but that the projects haven’t been able to keep up with the residential development growth farther down the road.

“There’s a lot more traffic than a few years ago when this probably could have taken place. Sometimes these projects happen at an inopportune time,” he said. “Yes, it needs to be done, but why did we wait until now?”

Flagg, the public works director, said the county has been planning to widen Sliding Hill Road for several years. He said the county in recent years has completed a few smaller road projects along the corridor to alleviate congestion in various phases, based on the availability of funding.

“This is a much larger project, so it took a lot of accumulated funds,” Flagg said.

The $11.4 million road project is mostly being funded by the state, which will pay $9.1 million. The county is paying $1.3 million. The remaining amount for the estimated total will be covered by federal funding and local development proffers.

In addition to widening the road, new turn lanes, bike lanes and sidewalks will be built, Flagg said.

David Hajek, co-owner of the Goddard School on Sliding Hill Road, said he and his preschool’s families are also concerned about traffic disruptions and potential safety risks.

He said several people have been asking the county to consider installing additional traffic lights at intersections along the corridor, such as at Totopotomoy Trail and Atlee Commerce Boulevard, to better manage traffic in a safe way.

Hajek said county and state officials have told them that it isn’t necessary and could potentially slow traffic even more. Flagg said turning right and making a U-turn at the next stoplight would be safer and relatively quick.

Hajek said he and others are skeptical of how much the road widening project will help to alleviate congestion.

“I’m sure the traffic will flow better, but it remains to be seen how it’ll be done,” he said. “It’ll be a mess while under construction. We won’t know until it’s all over.”