Charleston Gazette Mail News –
The landscape of drug use in West Virginia is changing
Fatal overdoses seem to be dropping in West Virginia, though those related to methamphetamine remain on the rise, according to data compiled by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
Preliminary numbers suggest that a total of 849 West Virginians died of overdoses in 2019, a 6% decrease from 2018, when 906 people died. The new numbers are a 16% drop from 2017, when overdose deaths in West Virginia topped more than 1,000 — with 1,019 dead — for the first time ever.
The overdose death data is compiled from causes of death reported on death certificates certified by the Office of the Chief Medical Officer and are not final, meaning numbers could rise as more death certificates are analyzed.
Bob Hansen, head of the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy, said those looking at the data sets, compiled in June, should have two main takeaways.
“One is the trend in seeing the rise in [methamphetamine use], and two is realizing that we still have a long way to go. Our rate compared to the national average [of fatal overdoses] is still higher,” Hansen said. “Even though we see some good numbers and a positive trend, we’ve got to keep at it.”
While opioid-related overdose deaths seem to be slowly decreasing in the state — down to 78% of all overdose deaths in 2019 compared to 85% in 2017 — meth-related overdose deaths totaled 372 in 2019, a 60% increase from 2017.
Hansen said this isn’t unexpected, as crackdowns on pill mill pharmacies and illegal prescription practices have led to a decrease in prescription opioid use and a potential increase in demand for other drugs.
“Counter to that reduction [in prescription opioids], which we love to see, is the growth of meth, and that’s very scary,” Hansen said. “We can see that it looks like in West Virginia, drug usage is changing, but it points to that people are using a variety of substances, and we can definitely see a trend of meth being present in many of these fatalities.”
Raleigh and Logan counties lead the state in the rate of fatal overdoses involving meth. Between 2017 and 2019, Raleigh County’s rate more than tripled, from 17 per 100,000 dying from meth-related overdoses to 57 per 100,000.
Logan County’s rate in 2019 was five times higher than that of two years earlier, up to 48 per 100,000 people dying in the county after using meth last year compared to just 9 per 100,000 in 2017.
Hansen said there are several challenges that can make it difficult to help people struggling with addiction to meth compared to addiction to opioids.
For one, he said, there aren’t as many evidence-based practices available for meth addiction.
If someone is addicted to opioids, they can benefit from a number of different therapies, including Medically Assisted Treatment, a type of recovery process that utilizes therapy in conjunction with medication like buprenorphine. While an opioid, buprenorphine works by stimulating the same brain receptors affected by other opioids, but it does not produce any mental or physical impairments.
There’s also no equivalent to naloxone, an opioid overdose reversing drug, for meth.
Hansen said these are issues the state is exploring as drug use trends become more clear.
“We’ve been focused so intently on opioids for a long time, and the landscape of drug use in West Virginia is changing,” Hansen said. “We’re just kind of gravitating that way — to training and better understanding the dynamics of using meth, and the clinical approaches that work. This year we plan to roll out different types of training and support so treatment programs can adapt to people using multiple substances and meth.”
While 2019 was the second consecutive year with a decrease in the number of people who died from overdoses in West Virginia, there’s no guarantee what 2020’s numbers will look like. There’s a chance overdoses, including fatal ones, could be on the rise as stressors brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic cause people with substance use disorders to relapse or possibly use for the first time.
In May 2020, paramedics across West Virginia responded to 923 calls about people suspected of suffering an overdose, a nearly 50% increase over last May and 200 calls more than in any other month in the last two years, according to the ODCP.
Local groups, like Kanawha County’s Solutions Oriented Addiction Response, or SOAR, report that they’ve seen a 400% increase in the number of people overdosing and being revived with naloxone since March, the beginning of the pandemic in West Virginia.
There’s no way to know how many of these overdoses will be fatal until the data is collected and released by the state next year.
In the meantime, Hansen said, local agencies and the state should remain focused on providing access to materials and services that can keep people safe from overdosing. That means more naloxone training sessions and handouts, the continuation of quick response teams and ensuring there are beds and resources available for people who are ready and willing to get help for substance use disorder.
None of this is easy during a pandemic, Hansen said, but it’s necessary.
“We don’t know what next year will look like. It’s all up in the air,” Hansen said. “For now — this is a good trend. As long as we keep going down from the 2017 numbers, that’s good news. We’ve got to keep working on this issue everyday, though, so we can reduce fatalities more. This is a good trend, we just have to keep it up.”