Officials: No Easy Fix For West Virginia’s Drug Problems

CHARLESTON — There is no easy solution to the Mountain State’s opioid epidemic, according to multiple professionals who spoke on the matter during the West Virginia Press Association’s 2018 Legislative Breakfast last week.

Wayne Harmon, chief of operations, Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority and West Virginia EMS Coalition, has worked as a medic for 30 years.

“We never saw the drug problems that we are seeing today,” he said. “I have seen a dramatic increase in social problems.”

These lead to behavior problems which lead to drug abuse by many people which in turn has seen an increase in violence toward providers, Harmon said. This is prompting providers to look into getting bulletproof vests for their people, he said.

“It has been really scary,” Harmon said.

In 2015, the Kanawha County Emergency Ambulance Authority responded to calls of 100 heroin overdoses, Harmon said. In 2017, that number rose to 582.

It cost crews around $220 in 2015 to work one overdose, he said. Now, the cost is around $270.

“We have seen a 141 percent increase in Narcan (a drug given to help people who are overdosing) costs,” Harmon said.

The problem now is drugs being cut with fentanyl and carfentanil, which are very potent drugs, he said.

“It has taken more Narcan to get these people breathing again,” Harmon said. “It is costing us more for the multiple doses of Narcan we have to use.”

They have transported one man from St. Albans who overdosed 11 times. Some people think that those who overdose should only be treated three times, Harmon said.

However, there have been numerous times he has dealt with people with other illnesses on multiple occasions, Harmon said.

“The amount of times I have run someone with COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and emphysema that are sitting there on the couch with oxygen and a cigarette in her hand,” Harmon said. “Should we stop running those patients?

“How many times do we run the same COPD and the same diabetic patients (who are not taking care of themselves) and we go back in three, four times a week? The drug epidemic is not something we can overlook,” Harmon said.

For many people, addiction is deeper than just wanting to take the drugs. Many drug addicts started after getting hurt and were prescribed medication, Harmon said.

Steps were taken to limit the pills, but that makes those available more valuable and expensive with pills running $60-$80, he said. If people can’t find those, they go to drugs like heroin, which costs $10-$15 for a single hit which is easier for many to get, he said.

However, potency varies from dealer to dealer and a single hit can be stronger than the last and lead to overdoses, Harmon said.

Dr. James Berry of the WVU Health Sciences Center said addiction is a disease and needs to be treated as such. Nationwide, drug abuse has claimed more lives than the HIV crisis and the Vietnam War, he said.

Frankie Tack, clinical assistant professor and addiction studies minor coordinator at West Virginia University, said new ways are needed to treat the epidemic, such as through peer counseling and support as well as other treatment options that require training.

Users may be helped and it may take a number of times to get them to seek help, Tack said.

“People cannot recover if they are dead,” she said.