DHHR Data Shows Slight Decrease in W.Va. Drug Overdoses

Graph courtesy of WVDHHR

CHARLESTON — On the heels of a major federal grant award to combat opioid abuse, Gov. Jim Justice announced that the state saw a slight decrease in drug overdoses in 2018.

The information comes from preliminary data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources. According to their numbers, there have been 888 confirmed drug overdose deaths in 2018.

DHHR estimates that number to go up to 952 overdose deaths – the first time the state has seen a drop in overdose deaths and a 6 percent drop from 1,017 deaths in 2017.

“It’s incredibly heartening to see that we are finally starting to make some incredible strides in our fight against the terrible drug crisis that continues to hurt the people of our state and the entire nation,” Justice said in a statement Thursday. “I’ve said for a long time that fixing this epidemic is the single most important thing that we absolutely need to do, but we still have a lot of work to do and we need to keep pushing for more and more solutions to this terrible problem.”

Cathy Slemp, state health officer and commissioner of DHHR’s Bureau for Public Health, said the estimated number is based reported deaths, pending causes of death, and other historical data. She praised the hard work of community-based groups, first responders, law enforcement, the judicial branch, health care providers, and others for helping fight the drug epidemic.

“It is certainly encouraging to see this decline in overdose deaths,” Slemp said. “The decrease reflects the incredible support we’ve had from Governor Justice in fighting the disease of addiction, not to mention the hard work of individuals, agencies, and communities across the state, as well as changing substance use patterns. We still lose far too many West Virginians to this disease. There clearly remains much work for all of us to do together.”

According the 2018 data for the confirmed 888 overdose deaths, more than 36 percent of overdoses involved methamphetamine – on the rise after crackdowns on prescription drugs and heroin. More than half of the deaths involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid nearly 100 times as strong as morphine and often mixed with other drugs.

Still, DHHR data shows that prescription painkillers and heroin remain at the top of list of drugs causing overdose deaths. In 2018, 82 percent of overdose deaths involved an opioid of some kind along with an additional drug or drugs. That’s down from 86 percent in 2017. Of the opioids, heroin and fentanyl remain the most common in overdose deaths, accounting for 59 percent and 23 percent of overdose deaths respectively.

The counties leading the state in overdose deaths include its most populous counties. Cabell, which has become the poster child for overdose deaths in recent years, led the state in at least 149 deaths, followed by Kanawha County at 145, Berkeley County at 73, and Raleigh County at 54.

According to DHHR, overdose deaths in Berkeley and Cabell counties will come in below 2017 numbers, with Cabell seeing as much as a 26 percent drop. Wood County, however, is estimated to see an overdose death increase by between 56 percent and 86 percent.

On Wednesday, the White House announced the awarding of $70.7 million in State Opioid Response Grants over two years. The block grants can be used for prevention, treatment and recovery services. West Virginia also received $7.4 million from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the Overdose Data to Action program.

The CDC grant will help West Virginia and other states improve overdose tracking to as close to real-time as possible. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, overdose reporting has improved from 12 months to six months. Both U.S. Senators Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., and Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., helped secure the funding as members of the Senate Appropriation Committee.

“Federal funding like this plays an important role in contributing to the fight to end the drug epidemic that is devastating so many families and communities across West Virginia,” Capito said Thursday. “I am glad to see this critical funding come to our state and will continue to advocate for these much-needed resources.”

“West Virginia is ground zero and we need all of the funding we can get to help those struggling with substance use disorder receive treatment and help heal from this crisis,” Manchin said. “This funding will go a long way and I will continue to fight to ensure West Virginia is getting our fair share of funding to fight this epidemic.”

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