West Virginia Overdose Deaths Up 13% in 2016

Fatal drug overdoses in West Virginia continued to rise last year and its overdose death rate still far outpaces any other state in the country.

A Feb. 13 analysis by the West Virginia Health Statistics Center shows at least 818 people in the state died of drug overdoses in 2016 – four times the number that occurred in 2001 and a nearly 13 percent increase over the 725 who died of overdoses in 2015.

About 86 percent of the deaths in 2016 involved at least one opioid, The Register-Herald reported.

“We are seeing an unprecedented rise in the overdose deaths related to opioids,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, the commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Resources’ Bureau for Public Health. “It seems we have not yet peaked.”

The data may change as more death certificates are recorded, state officials have said.

“As of 2015, a West Virginian was dying every 12 hours around the clock,” Gupta said. “That number did not get any better in 2016. We are on pace to have a West Virginian dying every 10 hours in 2016.”

Fewer opioids are being prescribed, but addicts have been turning to the cheaper alternative of heroin, which is often contaminated with even more potent substances such as fentanyl, Gupta said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, West Virginia’s drug overdose death rate was about 41.5 cases per 100,000 in 2015. The next highest states were New Hampshire (34.3 per 100,000) and Kentucky (29.9 per 100,000).

Given how bad opioid addiction is in the state, Gupta hopes local communities will work together to create innovations in treatment, take the best practices and become a model for the nation.

“It is something we must address as a population together,” Gupta said. “We must believe in our people.”