West Virginia has borne more than its share of problems related to the opioid epidemic, and statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week brought that point home further.
Nationally, 90,977 people died of overdose deaths in 2020, up about 28% from the 71,130 overdose deaths counted in 2019, according to the CDC. In West Virginia, the numbers were far worse. Overdose deaths were up nearly 56% last year, from 852 in 2019 to 1,326 in 2020.
To make the matter more dire, West Virginia has about 0.54% of the United States population, according to the 2020 census. In 2019, it had 1.2% of overdose deaths. Last year, it had 1.46%. That indicates the problem got worse here faster than it got worse elsewhere in the nation, both in raw numbers and proportionally.
These numbers are preliminary and subject to change, but they should drive home the point to whoever lives with this problem that it’s only gotten worse since the pandemic was declared.
It’s easy to blame the increase in overdose deaths to the isolation people felt last year as much of the nation shut down as federal, state and local governments tried to limit the spread of COVID-19. While that may be partly true, it’s not the entire story, as overdose deaths had been increasing before the pandemic.
In West Virginia, overdose deaths had peaked in August 2017. At that time, the state recorded 1,027 overdose deaths in the preceding 12 months. Numbers fell until September 2019 when “only” 811 deaths had been recorded in the preceding 12 months. “Only” is in quotes because 811 is still 811 too many.
The number of overdose deaths climbed slowly but steadily until April 2020, when the 12-month number reached 927. The next month, it was 1,036, and numbers climbed sharply after that: 1,110 in June, 1,131 in July, 1,156 in August, 1,219 in September, 1,240 in October and 1,283 in November before the 12-month number, which coincides with calendar year 2020, reached 1,326.
According to CDC data, 1,050 of the 1,326 overdose deaths were users of synthetic opioids, not including methadone. Heroin, a natural opioid, was responsible for 144 deaths.
Intravenous drug use has been linked to other problems, such as the spread of HIV in West Virginia. Yet the Legislature in its wisdom last year decided to crack down on drug abuse harm reduction programs by making needle exchange programs more difficult to operate and more intimidating for people with addiction and addiction-related problems to approach.
In the past, it was easy for people with comfortable lives to dismiss the use of illegal drugs as something those other people suffered from. No more. It can no longer be denied that addiction now affects all classes.
From users to associated diseases to the nature of harm reduction and treatment, opioid addiction has become one of the largest problems West Virginia faces, and it is one that too many people misunderstand. As long as people and elected officials refuse to face the realities of this problem, it can only get worse in both the short term and the long.