Drug overdose deaths have risen dramatically in West Virginia.
Lauren Peace writing for Mountain State Spotlight reports, “New data shows at least 1,275 West Virginians died from an overdose in 2020—a 45 percent increase from 2019.”
The state’s death toll had been leveling off from a previous high of 1,019 in 2017. The number was down to 856 in 2018 and 870 in 2019, but now it has risen significantly.
The final numbers are not yet available, so the death toll may go even higher.
The story is the same across the country. Health officials estimate as many as 90,000 individuals died from drug overdoses in 2020, up from a previous high of nearly 71,000 in 2019.
Some experts blame the pandemic for the dramatic increase.
“I wish I could say I’m surprised, but I’m not,” Jon Dower, executive director of West Virginia Sober-Living told Peace. “People lost in-person services and they lost stability.”
The Commonwealth Fund reported that “experts feared the pandemic would produce conditions that would further increase overdoses and deaths: economic shock, social isolation and increased mental health distress, and disrupted access to addiction support and medications that require face-to-face visits.”
Others blame the availability of fentanyl. The powerful synthetic opioid is smuggled from China and Mexico into the United States, where it has become a leading cause of drug overdoses. It is frequently mixed with other drugs so users may not know what they are getting.
“People have little to no control over how potent their drug supply will be,” reported the Drug Policy Alliance. “We know that fentanyl (is) often added to heroin high up the supply chain. By the time it makes it to the retail level, it may have been cut with even more adulterants, unbeknownst to the people who use and sell it.”
Perhaps the pandemic and the spread of fentanyl formed a perfect storm that caused overdose deaths to spike.
It is important to remember that these are not simply statistics. Each one represents a human being who lost their life because of the disease of addiction. Additionally, each death has a tragic ripple effect on the people who were close to them.
It has been said that “Addiction is a family disease. One person may use, but the whole family suffers.”
The impact of addiction extends to the rest of our state, even if we do not know the victims or their families. Each drug addiction is also a loss of potential that adds to the state’s struggles to maintain a sober and qualified workforce.
The West Virginia Legislature just passed, and Governor Justice signed, a new law that creates guidelines for harm reduction and needle exchange programs in West Virginia. Opponents of the bill, including the operators of at least two harm reduction programs in the state, fear the new guidelines are so strict they will force them to close or treat fewer people.
I hope that is not the case. The solution to our drug problem—and it is our problem as West Virginians—is found in more help, not less. The research clearly shows clean needles lower the spread of HIV and Hepatitis. Needle distribution also serves as a critical contact point to get people into rehab.
Without enough treatment beds, rehab options and successful community harm reduction programs, the record number of drug overdose deaths in 2020 will be the start of a new trend rather than a tragic one-time occurrence.