West Virginia leads nation in drug overdose deaths

Followed closely by Ohio, Pennsylvania

CHARLESTON — West Virginia led the nation in drug overdose death rates in 2017, followed closely by Ohio and Pennsylvania, according to a study released this week by the Commonwealth Fund.

With an average of 57.8 deaths per 100,000 residents, West Virginia’s drug fatality rate was nearly three times higher than the national average of 21.7. The rate was also 25 percent higher than Ohio, the next closest state with 46.3 deaths.

Pennsylvania had the third-highest overdose death rate that year, with 44.3, up from 19.4 in 2013.

“Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia have absolutely been devastated by this opioid epidemic,” said David Radley, the lead author of the report.

The rate of drug overdose deaths in West Virginia rose more than five fold between 2005 and 2017, the report states.

Radley said the report didn’t look into the reasons why the death rates were higher in those states. Radley said the popular opinion is that drug use is higher in places such as West Virginia where jobs can be hard to find.

“A lack of economic opportunity tends to push people toward substance abuse,” he said.

West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate has skyrocketed since 2005 when it averaged 10.5 deaths per 100,000 residents. The rate has nearly doubled from the average of 32.2 six years ago. The state also led the nation in adults who report fair or poor health, smoking or are obese.

Ohio has experienced a similar trend in overdose deaths, increasing from 20.8 in 2013 to 46.3 two years ago when the most up-to-date statistics were tabulated.

A key factor in the data is the increase in synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, “making it into the supply,” Radley said.

Jessica Holstein, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, said the state since 2017 has aggressively combatted the epidemic. State officials created the Office of Drug Control Policy that year to lead the development of programs and services related to the prevention, treatment and reduction of substance use.

Legislation passed in 2017 formed the Ryan Brown Fund — named after a Charleston man who died of an overdose in 2014 — that gave the Department of Health Human Services authority to develop facilities for long-term treatment in West Virginia, with more than 400 new treatment beds available by the end of the month. Health officials in Belmont County, Ohio, are seeing improvements in the overall overdose rate recently.

Robert Sproul, the county’s deputy health commissioner, said they partnered with the Ohio Department of Health in 2017 to begin offering free naloxone kits to first responders and families of addict. Through Project DAWN – Death Averted With Naloxone – they’ve distributed “hundreds” of kits over the past three years. When the life-saving antidote kit is used, they ask for people to return for new modules so they can track the resuscitation success rate.

“It seems to be a success,” Sproul said of Project D.A.W.N.

But they’re also seeing a significant increase in the usage of methamphetamine as authorities crack down on heroin and synthetic opioids. Mexican cartels are able to smuggle meth into the country and sell it cheaper than heroin, he said.

“It’s another domino,” Sproul said. “When they got rid of the pill mills, they went to heroin. Now they’re tackling the heroin dealers, so we think they’re moving to meth. “You take one away, they’re finding something else to replace it with.”

That’s why Sproul thinks treatment has to be the solution. The county has formed recovery boards and substance abuse boards to help people get find treatment programs and stay clean.

“We’ve got to get them off the drugs. They get off one drug, they’re onto another,” Sproul said of addicts. “We need to break that cycle.”

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