Maybe, just maybe, the number of deaths from opioid addiction in West Virginia is beginning to slow down.
Midyear figures released by the State Department of Health and Human Resources project 498 opioid-related deaths through June. That puts West Virginia on course to set a record for overdose deaths from opioids.
However, State Health Officer and Commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health, Dr. Rahul Gupta, says comparing the numbers to previous figures shows some potential progress.
The number of opioid-related deaths in the first half of 2016 reached 356. That number for the same period in 2017 shot up to 469, an increase of 32 percent. The rise for the first six months of 2018 is only 12 percent.
“The curve is flattening,” Gupta said on Talkline Monday. “It’s a little early to say, but we are seeing some encouraging numbers.”
West Virginia could use some hopeful news on the drug problem, which has destroyed the lives of individuals and families, decimated communities, increased crime and made it more difficult for employers to find drug-free workers. Gupta believes several of the prevention steps that have been taken are working.
For example, more communities are using quick response teams. These small groups of health and law enforcement professionals visit drug addicts within several days of surviving an overdose to try to get people into treatment.
“These are the people that would otherwise have not gotten any help,” Gupta said. “It helps us connect people to treatment, to recovery.”
Additionally, Gupta says a new law went into effect last month that will curb opioid prescription in the state. The Opioid Reduction Act limits doctors to prescribing a seven-day supply of the powerful pain killers, requires doctors to discuss pain treatment alternatives and addiction risks, and makes it harder for the patient to get a refill.
“We hope that… for the first time in the history of our state we’ll actually start to have meaningful declines in opioid prescribing,” Gupta said.
Meanwhile, federal investigators in West Virginia are getting more help in taking down drug dealers. West Virginia is one of eight states with high drug overdose death rates (the others are New Hampshire, California, Kentucky, Maine, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Tennessee) that are receiving additional manpower to go after dealers of synthetic opioids.
“I want to be clear about this: We’re not focusing on users, but on those who are supplying them with deadly drugs,” said Attorney General Jeff Sessions.
Gupta’s figures, although grim, offer a ray of hope. The epidemic is so bad that we could not expect the trend in overdose deaths to reverse quickly. The more reasonable expectation is to slow the spiraling death rate, and the 2018 figures indicate that may finally be happening.