June Leffler Published

Drug Overdoses Climbing Year After Year In U.S., W.Va.

A man checks out an anti-overdose kit he was given at a clinic. With America confronting an opioid epidemic, Walgreens says it will stock naloxone spray at all of its pharmacies.

Last year set a record for overdose deaths but federal officials forecast 2021 to be even more tragic. In West Virginia, that outlook is even more bleak.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released preliminary data Wednesday that estimates 100,000 people died in just a 12-month span — from March 2020 to March 2021. During those months, 1,600 West Virginians passed away.

That provisional data represents a 29 percent increase in the nation from one year prior. In West Virginia, deaths increased twice that rate at 62 percent. Vermont is the only other state to see a more significant increase at 70 percent.

“This translates to an American perishing from a drug overdose death every five minutes,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the nation’s recently confirmed drug czar and former West Virginia state health officer in a news conference on Wednesday.


Kanawha Charleston Health Department

Health experts say the pandemic and a rise in the dangerous, synthetic opioid fentanyl caused drug overdoses to peak last year when 93,000 people died. In its latest data set, the CDC says fentanyl was involved in a majority of fatal overdoses.

“The amount of illegal fentanyl in our country has risen to an unprecedented level this year alone,” said Anne Milgram, an administrator with the Drug Enforcement Administration. She said her agency has seized 12,000 pounds of the substance this year, including 14 million fake prescription pills.

Elected officials weighed in on the news today, with grief and calls for action.

“Today’s heartbreaking milestone makes it crystal clear that we have not done enough,” said Sen. Joe Manchin in a statement.

Manchin said he supports more treatment options in the Mountain State and making fentanyl a Schedule I controlled substance permanently.

The Biden administration spoke with reporters today to tout how it plans to tackle the ever-increasing drug crisis. The president is calling for a $670 million increase in next year’s budget for research, prevention and treatment.

Biden may be the first president to advocate for harm reduction, which is an evidence-based approach that hopes to keep active drug users as safe as possible before they even enter treatment. For the president, that means more access to fentanyl testing strips, clean syringes and overdose reversal treatments, namely naloxone.

Naloxone can restore a person’s breathing and consciousness, preventing death and potential brain damage. EMS can administer this medication, but so can friends or bystanders.

Federal officials released a model law Wednesday that states could adopt to provide more access to naloxone. It recommends ways to make the life-saving medication affordable and accessible, such as handing it out in correctional and educational settings.

While convincing state legislatures, especially Republican-led ones like West Virginia, to adopt a Biden backed bill might be a hurdle, those in addiction services say the suggestions are good ones.

“These are things that we could already be doing in West Virginia under current law,” said Robin Pollini, a substance abuse and infectious disease epidemiologist at West Virginia University. “Physicians can legally prescribe naloxone anytime they like, and pharmacists can co-dispense naloxone… Yet this is rarely done.”

Pollini said one of the best things the federal government could do is make naloxone available over the counter.

Harm reduction programs, grassroots groups and state agencies do distribute naloxone throughout West Virginia, with many doses coming from the state’s Office of Drug Control Policy. The office has distributed over 33,000 naloxone kits so far this year. About 8,000 doses were handed out by volunteers during Save-A-Life Day events this year.

“I’m supportive and the office is supportive of all the initiatives that the Biden administration has proposed around distributing naloxone,” Director of ODCP Dr. Matthew Christiansen said.

He thinks the state is being proactive on this front, and has eliminated some barriers. West Virginia has a good Samaritan law that shields anyone administering naloxone from repercussions if they’re acting in good faith. The state also has a standing order saying a pharmacist can dispense naloxone without a doctor’s prescription.

“We know that it’s effective in reversing overdose, and we know that it enables people to enter into successful long-term recovery in a way that allows them to really be productive members of society,” Christiansen said.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.