In 2018, two to three West Virginians died every day on average from drug overdoses. Figures from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center for 2018—the most recent year figures are available—show that 900 people in our state died from overdoses, primarily heroin, methamphetamine and fentanyl.
As shocking as that number may be, it is down significantly from the previous year. In 2017, the death toll was 1,019. That’s a decline of nearly 12 percent after six consecutive years of increases.
There are some positive signs nationally as well. Figures released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that overdose deaths across the country dropped from 70,237 in 2017 to 67,367 in 2018. That’s a decline of about four percent.
As a result, life expectancy improved slightly in this country for the first time in three years.
“This news is a real victory, and it should be a source of encouragement for all Americans who have been committed to connecting people struggling with substance abuse to treatment and recovery,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar.
West Virginia has come miles in treatment and recovery from where it was just a few years ago when the opioid crisis was taking hold.
The number of treatment beds has increased from under 200 to 740 today, with plans for another 200. People with substance abuse disorders can now receive Medicaid funded treatment from a few weeks to four to six months depending on need.
The quick response teams, which began in Huntington in 2017, are now operating in 22 counties and communities. These teams consist of a paramedic, law enforcement officer and recovery coach who visit individuals within hours of an overdose to try to get them into recovery.
Governor Jim Justice’s Jobs and Hope program, which began just last August, has received over 900 referrals of recovering addicts who get assistance with vocational training and help with finding a job, transportation and childcare.
Local health departments and first responders are getting thousands of doses of Naloxone they can use to revive individuals who have overdosed.
Robert Hansen, director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, says the decline in overdose deaths shows the efforts are paying off.
“I hope it’s a trend,” he said, adding cautiously that they don’t have 2019 figures yet. “I think we’re making progress, but also it’s such a complex issue that we may have some steps backward, but I think we’re on the road to slowly helping the state.”
The drug crisis started escalating in West Virginia about 15 years ago, and then surged in the middle of the decade. The mortality rate nearly doubled from 2012 to 2018, and it’s taken awhile for treatment and recovery to catch up.
West Virginia will have to see a couple more years of declining overdose deaths to establish a trend, but the one year drop and the commitment to treatment and recovery are encouraging signs.