Overdose deaths soar in West Virginia amid pandemic

Drug overdose deaths are up more than 40% in West Virginia, an increase likely driven by the coronavirus pandemic, according to preliminary data released this month by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Between August 2019 and August 2020, 1,147 West Virginians fatally overdosed on drugs, compared to 816 during the same 12-month period the year before, the CDC report shows.

“People are dying at mass rates,” said Chelsea Carter, program coordinator at Brighter Futures Substance and Mental Health Treatment in Boone County. “One of the reasons is they are using alone more frequently, and when they overdose, there is no one there to help save them.”

West Virginia’s increase was higher than all but four states—Louisiana, Kentucky, Colorado and South Carolina—and the District of Columbia. Nationwide, overdose deaths have jumped by 25%, according to the CDC’s provisional data.

The Mountain State already has the highest overdose death rate in the country. The latest numbers follow two consecutive years of slight drops in fatal overdoses. West Virginia had a record number of overdose deaths—1,019—during the 2017 calendar year. The 2020 fatal overdoses could exceed that total. 

An estimated 145,000 West Virginians have a substance abuse problem, according to a state review of Medicaid data. But many struggle to find help. The state has 180 long-term drug treatment facilities with a combined 2,461 beds, and another 1,100 beds at shorter-term recovery centers.

Amid the pandemic, substance use treatment programs have had to reduce their capacity and cancel in-person group therapy and other counseling sessions. 

“It is crucial for addicts who are trying to recover to have a strong support system,” said Carter, who’s been in recovery herself for 12 years. “If that support system is in meetings, then you essentially have taken their lifeline away from them. When we want someone to recover from addiction, the last thing we want to do is take away the things that are saving them.”

The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources no longer makes public preliminary overdose death counts. The agency hasn’t released any information about fatal overdoses for the entire calendar year of 2020, or the first two months of this year. 

The state’s Office of Drug Control Policy publishes periodic reports about the number of emergency medical crew responses to suspected overdoses, but doesn’t specify how many were fatal. Those emergency responses peaked at 1,068 in May 2020—nearly double the monthly number before the pandemic started—and have gradually declined ever since. 

The office also tracks the number of people taken to hospital emergency rooms after overdosing. Those reached a high of 668 in July 2020, and declined in subsequent months.

“I’m hopeful things are getting better,” Dr. Matt Christiansen, executive director of the drug control office, told state lawmakers at a meeting last month. “We’re on shaky ground here. We’re not over this yet.”

A dozen counties in West Virginia are among the 25 counties across America with the highest drug overdose death rates, according to a recent analysis by 24/7 Tempo, a financial news outlet. Cabell County, by far, had the worst drug overdose rate in the nation, the study found. From 2015 to 2019, Cabell had 120 drug overdose deaths per 100,000 residents on average per year, six times the national rate.