June Leffler Published

W.Va. Overdose Deaths Slow Down As Pandemic Winds Down

A kit with naloxone, also known by its brand name Narcan, is displayed at the South Jersey AIDS Alliance in Atlantic City. Naloxone counters an overdose with heroin or certain prescription painkillers by blocking the receptors these opioids bind to in the brain.

Those in recovery have a phrase: the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s human connection. That’s why federal and state officials say fatal overdoses rose to new heights during the early, most isolating days of the pandemic.

“There’s a clear correlation with regard to the pandemic and the isolation and the inability to access support services for folks who have [substance use disorder],” said West Virginia Secretary of Health and Human Resources Bill Crouch.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated last November that fatal overdoses nationwide had risen to 100,000 a year, a new record. Data now suggest these deaths may be slowing down.

Provisional data show reported overdose deaths plateaued nationwide, and decreased 15 percent in West Virginia, from April to September of 2021. The CDC says it takes four months to estimate the number of deaths, and up to a year to accurately report these deaths.

Crouch said more treatment and wrap-around services are being offered in recent years with direction from the Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse and Prevention and DHHR’s Office of Drug Control Policy, led by Dr. Matthew Christiansen.

“In 2018, with the efforts we were going forward with, we had a 22 percent reduction in overdose deaths. In 2019, we had a 13 percent reduction in overdose. And then the pandemic hit,” Crouch said. “We ended up with a lot of folks who lost those contacts, lost those resources, lost a lot of the support mechanisms they needed to tackle this.”

Crouch said much of those services returned or even expanded last year. Record numbers of naloxone, an overdose reversal treatment, were distributed by state agencies, local health departments and grassroots volunteers.

“There are hundreds of West Virginians working every day, unpaid and largely unacknowledged, to get naloxone where it needs to be, and hundreds more doing the extremely emotional work of reversing overdoses,” said Dr. Robin Pollini, an infectious disease doctor specializing in substance use disorder. “It’s always good news when we hear fatal overdoses are down. That said, this is a marathon and not a sprint.”

DHHR recommends anyone with substance use disorder looking for help to contact HELP4WV, which offers 24/7 confidential support and resource referrals through call, text, and chat lines. HELP4WV also offers a Children’s Crisis and Referral line. Residents may call HELP4WV at 844-HELP4WV, text at 844-435-7498, or chat at www.help4wv.com.