CHARLESTON — West Virginia state officials announced on Thursday that they estimate a slight decline in drug overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018.
Meanwhile, the head of a police drug unit said he continues to see a barrage of drugs into the area, the head of addiction services at West Virginia University said he continues to see steady demand for treatment, and a West Virginian in long-term recovery said she continues to watch her friends die.
While methamphetamine deaths continue to increase, state health officials said they estimate about 952 drug overdose deaths in total in 2018, down six percent from 2017. That year, West Virginia, a state of 1.8 million, surpassed 1,000 drug overdose deaths. 1,017 people died of drug overdoses.
In a statement, Governor Jim Justice said it was “incredibly heartening to see that we are finally starting to make some incredible strides in our fight against the terrible drug crisis that continues to hurt the people of our state and the entire nation.”
“I’ve said for a long time that fixing this epidemic is the single most important thing that we absolutely need to do,” Justice, a Republican who is seeking re-election, said. “But we still have a lot of work to do and we need to keep pushing for more and more solutions to this terrible problem.”
“Stop using the drug crisis as a platform,” responded Sarah Cordwell, who is in recovery and one of the leaders of a grassroots group in Charleston, Solution Oriented Addiction Response. “It’s an actual problem. It’s not something to get re-elected on.”
Justice left the state’s Office of Drug Control policy without an official director for eight months and didn’t appoint the Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment until nearly two years into his term.
Preliminary figures released by the state Department of Health and Human Resources Thursday show 725 opioid-related overdose deaths, compared to 875 in 2017, a 17 percent decrease.
Methamphetamine-related deaths increased by nearly 40 percent, from 231 to 321. Heroin deaths declined from 268 to 206.
Fentanyl, an especially potent synthetic opioid, was found in 526 cases, compared to 596 in 2017. That year, fentanyl became more likely to kill West Virginians than any other drug.
Cordwell, whose groups works to lessen the stigma around addiction, and who has helped others find treatment, said she notices treatment is more accessible. West Virginia now has hundreds of inpatient treatment beds, compared to just over 100 in early 2018.
She also notices Naloxone, the antidote to an opioid overdose, is more accessible. In 2018, former State Health Officer Dr. Rahul Gupta issued an order allowing people to pick up that drug at pharmacies without a prescription. DHHR has also distributed it.
Cordwell said she felt hopeful, but that the state can do better.
“It’s all of our responsibility,” she said. “It’s not someone else’s problem. They’re West Virginians.”
Sgt. Robert Richards of the State Police, Beckley-Raleigh County Drug and Violent Crime Unit coordinator, said he continues to see an influx of drugs into Raleigh County from out of state.
“We could work seven days a week, 12 to 18 hours a day, and we would still barely make a dent,” he said.
He thanked Justice and the State Police for their work to help his unit purchase the technology to identify drug type. But he describes his unit’s work as an uphill climb. They often deal with the same people, over and over again, although he thinks they’re having a small effect.
Prescription drug arrests declined a few years ago, along with the closing of a couple of doctor offices, he said. But heroin and methamphetamine arrests have increased in recent years.
Dr. James Berry, director of addiction services at WVU, said we should be “cautiously optimistic.” He noted that medication-assisted treatment, as well as Naloxone, is more widely available. Medication-assisted treatment includes prescription drugs to lessen withdrawal.
“There’s a constant demand for treatment and it’s been steady for a long time now,” he said. “Fortunately, we’ve been able to do a better job at meeting the demand, but the demand continues to be very, very high.”
In a statement, Dr. Cathy Slemp, State Health Officer and Commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health. said “the decrease reflects the incredible support we’ve had from Governor Justice in fighting the disease of addiction, not to mention the hard work of individuals, agencies, and communities across the state, as well as changing substance use patterns,” adding that there is work to do.
Meanwhile, Dr. Robin Pollini, a substance abuse and infectious disease epidemiologist and associate professor in WVU’s School of Public Health, said that drug deaths are leveling off or declining in many states, but there doesn’t seem to be much “rhyme or reason.” She looked at CDC data and noticed that some states experiencing declines had implemented little intervention work, while some experiencing increases had dedicated hard work to the issue.
DHHR provided a table that showed drug deaths from 2001 forward. In 2001, there were 212 in West Virginia. The number has increased each year, except 2018.
But Pollini noted the figure is similar to the number in 2016, when it was 890.
She said she tends to think the leveling off has more with the drug markets, and that people who use drugs are learning to handle fentanyl, a drug often mixed with heroin that killed many West Virginians who were expecting pure heroin.
She said that the decline in deaths is likely due to multiple things, including access to Naloxone. Congressional funding has also helped increased access to medication-assisted treatment in the state, and opioid lawsuit settlement funding has helped increase the number of the treatment beds.
But she added that West Virginia state officials have never had to analyze the causes behind a decline in drug deaths, before.
“So we’re back to where we were two years ago,” she said. “For all the effort we’ve put in in the past two years, are we happy we’re back at the same number we were two years ago, or do we want better?”
She added that there are research-based ways to decrease overdoses – more medication-assisted treatment, more Naloxone, and more harm reduction programs.
She said, “We know what works. We just can’t get enough of it out there.”