This story was originally published by Mountain State Spotlight. For more stories from Mountain State Spotlight, visit www.mountainstatespotlight.org.
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.
Opioid trial set for May 3
The reports come as a lawsuit filed by the Cabell County Commission and City of Huntington against the country’s largest prescription drug distributors barrels toward a trial on May 3.
The lawsuit alleges that the drug wholesalers fueled the opioid epidemic by flooding the city and county with highly-addictive painkillers.
At a federal court hearing last week, the distributors’ lawyers disclosed that Cabell County and Huntington are seeking $2.6 billion to abate problems caused by the opioid crisis.
The companies’ lawyers told U.S. District Judge David Faber that the city and county have based their lawsuit on a faulty legal theory: that the flood of opioids caused a “public nuisance.” Such claims typically apply to problems like contaminated drinking water and bad odors coming from factories, the lawyers said.
“West Virginia law has never recognized a public nuisance claim where the gist of the complaint is that a product causes personal injuries that in turn caused emotional distress or economic loss,” said F. Lane Heard, an attorney who spoke on behalf of distributors Cardinal Health, AmerisourceBergen and McKesson. “Plaintiffs are asking this court to go where the West Virginia Supreme Court has never gone.”
Cabell County’s lawyers shot back that courts in 20 states have recognized the massive prescription opioid shipments as a public nuisance.
“The effects of the opioid epidemic are far-reaching throughout the community,” said Charleston lawyer Tony Majestro, who’s representing Cabell County . “And the public nuisance law doctrine gives the public the right to be free of this scourge, which causes a substantial interference with the health and safety rights of the general public.”
The drug distributor’s lawyers also tried to make the case that the companies are too far removed from the opioid crisis and can’t be held responsible for the epidemic. They argued that the companies shipped the painkillers to licensed pharmacies that filled prescriptions from licensed doctors. It wasn’t their fault if the drugs wound up on the black market, the lawyers said.
Huntington’s lawyer, Anne Kearse, countered that the distributors blatantly violated federal law by not reporting and stopping deliveries to pharmacies that place suspicious orders for opioid painkillers.
Faber took both matters under advisement.
During this year’s legislative session, West Virginia lawmakers have yet to take up any measures that aim to help people struggling with addiction.
Instead, the state Senate passed a bill [SB 334] earlier this month that, critics say, would likely put syringe exchange programs out of business. The legislation requires such harm reduction programs to secure licenses through the DHHR and includes onerous rules to do so.
People who inject drugs and use syringe exchanges are more likely to enroll in substance use treatment programs than those who don’t use such exchanges, according to the CDC. The needle exchanges also help to reduce the spread of diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.
The legislation has been sent to the House Health and Human Resources Committee, which has yet to take any action on it.
Reach reporter Eric Eyre at firstname.lastname@example.org