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Drug Crisis: Resources needed to focus on fight

By Friday evening, West Virginia had recorded 487 deaths from COVID-19. Most — not all, unfortunately — Mountain State residents have come to realize the coronavirus is serious business.

Another epidemic has been more deadly and more long-lasting. It is substance abuse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates overdoses and other fatalities linked to substance abuse will take 950-975 lives in our state this year.

That is nothing new. In 2018, the last full calendar year for which statistics have been released, drug overdoses killed 856 West Virginians.

You will have noticed that the expected fatality rate is substantially higher than that for 2018. In fact, even as COVID-19 has been reaping its own toll, substance abuse has grown worse in West Virginia. It is possible the coronavirus epidemic may even be contributing to abuse of opioids, methamphetamines and other dangerous drugs.

Gov. Jim Justice is painfully aware of the problem. Late last month, he appointed a new director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy. The new leader is Matthew Christiansen, who works in primary care and addiction medicine at the Marshall University Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.

“West Virginia’s drug crisis has not taken a break, even though we are experiencing a worldwide pandemic,” the governor noted in announcing Christiansen’s appointment, into which he is transitioning this month.

If anything, drug abuse is a tougher nut than COVID-19 to crack. At least we will have a vaccine against the virus within the next few months. There is no immunization against opioid addiction.

No doubt state legislators will remain somewhat preoccupied with COVID-19 when they meet for their annual regular session early next year. They need to focus on substance abuse, too — and on whether additional state resources should be earmarked to fighting it.

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