Officials forming plans to fight epidemic

CHARLESTON (AP) — As West Virginia sees record numbers of drug overdose deaths, state officials say they’ll submit plans for responding further to the opioid epidemic to Gov. Jim Justice by mid-January.

“There is a critical need to identify a concise set of recommendations to stem the tide of overdose deaths,” said Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch.

The recommendations will involve public engagement and a partnership with regional and national experts. West Virginia reported a record 884 overdose deaths last year, with 756 involving at least one opioid. That’s up from 735 drug overdose fatalities in 2015, when the federal Centers for Disease Control reported that West Virginia’s death rate led all states at 41.5 per 100,000 people. The rate among its relatively small population of less than 1.8 million increased last year to about 49 deaths per 100,000 people. According to health officials, preliminary analysis shows that seven out of 10 people who died had a painkiller prescription filled within a year of their death, and four in 10 had one filled within 30 days before.

This year the state established a new Office of Drug Control Policy in the department under a new law.

The office plans to coordinate with public health experts from West Virginia University, Marshall University and Johns Hopkins University.

“We are at a precipice and need to act with a sense of urgency,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, commissioner of the Bureau of Public Health. “These statistics are alarming and every day we wait to take action is another day we are losing people to addiction and overdose.”

Overdose deaths often involve multiple types of drugs, the DHHR said.

State data through mid-October show 558 drug fatalities so far, indicating the rate has begun dropping. Health officials this year have distributed thousands of kits with an antidote — Naloxone — used by emergency personnel that can get people breathing again if administered in time after an opioid overdose.