June Leffler Published

W.Va. Overdose Deaths On The Decline

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West Virginia’s top addiction official says drug overdose deaths are on the decline.

Drug overdose deaths reached new heights from April of 2020 to April of 2021 in West Virginia, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s an estimated 1,600 deaths in West Virginia over 12 months. That number decreased by 81 deaths, or 5 percent, over seven months.

Dr. Matt Christiansen of the state Office of Drug Control Policy told lawmakers Tuesday the state can keep up that momentum by expanding treatment and harm reduction. He said there is still hope for thousands of West Virginians living with substance use disorder.

“They’re living with a deadly disease,” Christiansen said. “They’re still alive, and they’re still with us. And we still have a chance to improve their lives, and keep those parents with their kids and those kids with their parents.”

Christiansen blamed the rising prevalence of fentanyl, in pill or other forms, for deaths.

“Experimentation is not experimentation anymore like it used to be. This stuff is deadly. And it’s everywhere,” he said.

Christiansen touted medication assisted treatment, which is used to transition someone off of IV drugs while managing opioid withdrawal. These treatments are proving to save lives, improve wellbeing and curb HIV and other infectious diseases, but 27,000 West Virginians with an addiction do not have access to these services.

“This is still a goal of ours to make sure that we are expanding treatment in areas that don’t have adequate access at this time,” Christiansen said.

Christiansen said outreach efforts have expanded in recent years due to state and community programs. Those include an uptick in drug diversion programs for those facing incarceration or child welfare cases, quick response teams, and naloxone distribution.

The state, with the help of harm reduction programs like SOAR in Charleston and the Milan Puskar Health Right in Morgantown, gave out almost 68,000 doses of the overdose reversal treatment in 2021. That’s three and a half times more kits handed out than in 2020.

Christiansen said state data show there is a correlation between increased naloxone distribution and a reduction in overdose calls to EMS.

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