CDC: Fatal overdoses drop slightly in WV from March 2021-22


West Virginia is one of six states to report a decrease in fatal drug overdoses between March 2021 and March 2022, according to a report released Wednesday by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

It’s the first drop in overdose deaths reported in the state since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. According to the report, West Virginia saw a nearly 4% decrease in overdose deaths compared to the previous 12 months. Virginia — with a drop of nearly 7% — was the only state to see a larger decrease than West Virginia. 

“West Virginia is starting to plateau and likely seeing a slight downward trend [in fatal overdoses],” Dr. Matthew Christiansen, director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said in a Wednesday news release. “We are encouraged by [the] CDC’s data and will continue our efforts to end West Virginia’s substance use epidemic.” 

Between March 2021 and March 2022, the state reported 1,403 fatal overdoses. The CDC estimated that, during this time, West Virginia would see 82 more overdose deaths than were recorded. 

Most fatal overdoses involve polydrug use, where the victim uses more than one type of drug or class of drug before overdosing. 

Still, nearly 84% of fatal overdoses reported in West Virginia over those 12 months — 1,178 of them — included an opioid, the CDC said. All but 53 of the opioid-related deaths included synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, which have been on the increase in West Virginia and nationwide for several years and are much more deadly than natural opioids. 

Between 2020 and 2021 — after two consecutive years of declines in the number of fatal overdoses — West Virginia again began to see an increase in drug overdose deaths, which experts said was likely tied to strains from the pandemic. 

According to provisional data from the state Office of Drug Control Policy — which tracks data from January to January, unlike the CDC — there were at least 1,333 drug overdose deaths in West Virginia during 2020. That’s a 51% increase, compared to the 884 overdose deaths reported in 2019, according to the state agency. 

Christiansen said in a news release that the decrease in overdose deaths is potentially because of “a number of measures” implemented by the Department of Health and Human Resources in 2021 to expand recovery options, destigmatize substance use disorder and increase access among high-risk people to the lifesaving overdose-reversal drug naloxone. 

While the West Virginia Legislature has limited low-barrier harm reduction programs from operating here, partnerships with local organizers and grassroots programs have allowed more naloxone to move in the state over the past two years than years previous. 

Those efforts — save for outlawing access to low-barrier syringe service programs — line up with goals set by President Joe Biden to curtail overdose deaths nationwide in coming years. Dr. Rahul Gupta, national drug czar, returned to West Virginia last month to share the aims of the Biden administration and discuss what the state should do to help improve rates locally. 

Gupta, who previously served as West Virginia’s health officer and the head of the state ODCP, said he believes West Virginia is in “a strong position” to see improvements in drug overdose rates. Nationwide, he said, overdose rates increased during the coronavirus pandemic. 

He credited Christiansen’s leadership at the ODCP and efforts to partner with local groups as part of these successes. One such effort — the annual Save A Life Day, when dozens of groups distribute thousands of free doses of naloxone throughout communities — is still growing in West Virginia. 

Held Thursday, this will be the first year all 55 counties in the state participate in Save A Life Day. For a full listing of participating locations to pick up naloxone and fentanyl test strips, visit: 

“West Virginia was going the right way. The systems that would lead to improvements existed before [COVID-19], and I do believe we will see payoff from that local infrastructure continue to come through saved lives,” Gupta said. “It may take time, but what’s being done here — [naloxone] distribution, education — these are models that can be replicated effectively in other places. They do work.” 

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Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or caity.coyne