West Virginia among top states with most annual drug overdose deaths

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Yearly overdose deaths have topped 100,000 for the first time with some of the largest increases in West Virginia, according to new federal data published Wednesday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the unprecedented milestone is tied to the COVID-19 pandemic and a more dangerous drug supply.

Many of the deaths involve illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid.

Overdose deaths nationally increased nearly 30 percent from April 2020 to April 2021. In West Virginia, that number jumped by 62 percent.

West Virginia saw the second-highest increase behind Vermont at 70 percent. Kentucky ranked third with a 55 percent spike.

Out of the 100,000 deaths, more than 1,600 West Virginians died in the last year.

Dr. Matthew Christiansen

The death toll rose in all but four states including Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota.

Synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, caused nearly two-thirds, or 64 percent, of all drug overdose deaths during the 12-month period.

Matthew Christiansen, director of the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources’ Office of Drug Control Policy, told MetroNews the impact of the coronavirus pandemic will not be fully understood until additional data is collected.

“We saw a significant decrease in overdose deaths in 2018 and 2019,” he noted. “When the pandemic hit, we saw overdoses spike shortly after the shutdowns, and as we closed certain programs or restricted access to certain programs, we acknowledge that some of the people that needed help and needed treatment weren’t going to get it at the time, but the risks at that time were just too great.”

The state is holding virtual public hearings this month and in December on the 2022 West Virginia Substance Use Response Plan. The next meeting is set for Thursday from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m.

U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. (File)

Nationwide drug overdoses now surpass deaths from car crashes, guns and even flu and pneumonia. The total is close to that for diabetes, the nation’s No. 7 cause of death.

The data was compiled by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) released a statement Wednesday urging immediate action to address the increase in overdose deaths.

“Today’s heartbreaking milestone makes it crystal clear that we have not done enough, and must take immediate, swift action to address the drug epidemic that continues to ravage our nation and West Virginia. This also shows that we must have new, dedicated leadership at the FDA that understands the gravity of the drug epidemic and will fight back against the greed of the pharmaceutical industry,” Manchin said.

The senator went on to say, “I will continue to work tirelessly to advocate for funding and legislation to combat the drug epidemic. Congress must permanently schedule illicit fentanyl, which is to blame for more than 75% of overdose deaths, and fund treatment centers in order to help our fellow West Virginians and Americans recover from substance use disorder that has taken far too many people already.”

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