CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Half of West Virginia’s residents say they have a friend or family member who has been addicted to prescription pain medications.
That’s according to the latest MetroNews Dominion Post West Virginia Poll.
“Half the state has a friend or family member who has been addicted. It’s just tragic,” said Rex Repass, president of Research America Inc. and author of the West Virginia Poll.
The poll results show that the addiction epidemic is across all demographics.
“The problem is not isolated to any one demographic group either,” Repass said. “It’s males and females. It tends to be a little bit higher among younger people. But there’s a really high incidence among all age groups, gender and place of residence in the state.”
The West Virginia Poll surveyed 404 respondents from all 55 counties. The survey was conducted between Aug.16-26. The confidence interval is +/- 4.9 percentage points.
A similar question was asked last year. Then, it showed 48 percent know of a family member or friend who has been addicted to prescription pain medications. The poll last year showed 52 percent said they did not.
While that indicates a slightly higher number who say addiction has touched their lives, it’s also within the margin of error for the poll.
“It’s a slight increase from a year ago. You do have to take the confidence interval into account,” Repass said. “But the point is, about half of West Virginians have that personal relationship with someone who has been addicted to prescription pain medication.”
The West Virginia Poll echoes results from a Pew Research Center Survey this year.
Nine in ten Americans who live in a rural area say drug addiction is either a major or minor problem in their community, according to Pew.
The results were almost as high among those who live in suburban or urban areas.
President Donald Trump last year declared the opioid epidemic a national public health emergency.
West Virginia has received particular attention for its outsized role in the epidemic.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 884 people died of drug overdoses in West Virginia in 2016, the highest rate in the country.
More than 1,000 people in West Virginia died by overdoses for the first time in 2017, according to recently updated statistics from the West Virginia Health Statistic Center.
Early this year, an investigation by the House Committee on Energy and Commerce revealed that drug wholesalers sent more than 20.8 million prescription painkillers to the small town of Williamson from 2008 and 2015.
“West Virginia is not alone. It tends to be more of an epidemic in southern and also rural states,” Repass said.
“I know the Huntington area is making some good strides in combating this problem. But even our data in the West Virginia Poll shows the problem is worse in southern West Virginia than the northern part of the state, but it’s a problem throughout the state.”
One of West Virginia’s challenges has been identifying consistent leadership in the effort.
West Virginia’s commissioner of public health, Rahul Gupta, announced this week that he is leaving the agency to work for March of Dimes.
Delegate Amy Summers, R-Taylor, said she hopes Gupta’s role will be filled as soon as possible. Summers is the vice chairwoman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.
“I am hoping and encouraging the governor to get this position filled quickly,” Summers said. “On the health committee we deal with such big issues for our state that need addressed and we can’t have much of a lapse in leadership in that position.
“The biggest priority we’ve had to deal with, of course, is the opioid crisis, but now we’re seeing we’re having an explosion in the number of foster children in our state. The problem just keeps getting bigger and bigger, and we cannot let that position be unfilled.”
The West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, created in 2017, has had a revolving door of leaders.
Jim Johnson was appointed as director effective Sept. 2, 2017; Johnson retired effective Jan. 22, 2018, and Susie Mullens assumed the role of interim director; Governor Justice appointed Michael Brumage as director effective Feb. 5, 2018; Brumage stepped down on March 23, 2018, and Susie Mullens again assumed the role of interim director. Mullens left for another job and Nancy Sullivan then stepped in as interim director.
Senator Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, this month expressed concern about the effectiveness of the Office of Drug Control Policy.
In addition to the frequently changing leadership, Woelfel was worried about the agency missing a deadline to develop a strategic plan.
The strategic plan is supposed to aim at reducing the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse and smoking by at least 10 percent and to develop a plan to expand the number of treatment beds throughout the state in high priority areas.
Both of the plans were due by this past July as stated in West Virginia Code, but they have not been completed.
“Most West Virginians agree we are in a crisis right now with respect to drugs and addiction,” Woelfel stated.