Posted: April 25, 2018 at 10:06 pm

By Lexsey Marrara and Mitch Blahut

Pat Cornell, a paramedic in Monongalia County, says he responded to  about 10 overdose calls in one recent weekend. He was very shaken by one particular episode, the overdose of an 18-year-old student who reminded him of his own daughter. Using naloxone or Narcan, a drug that can reserve overdoses, Cornell and his crew were able to save her and the other patients’ lives. 

“Just last weekend my team was able to bring back [some] people that overdosed,” Cornell said. “One girl was around my kid’s age.” 

A few years ago, as the number of deaths from drug overdoses continued to rise, EMS officials in West Virginia began using Narcan to reverse the effects of the overdoses. Narcan can be given injected into the muscle of the arm, thigh, or buttocks, or with a nasal spray device into the nose.

“It’s hard to tell how many lives we have possibly saved by doing that,” said Monongalia County Sergeant Dave Wilfong.

Monongalia County Sergeant Dave Wilfong displays the Narcan kit that is supplied to first responders.

However, some counties in West Virginia do not have the resources to pay for a kit of Narcan, which costs around $130 to $140 and includes only one to two doses. The price of the drug has soared in recent years. In February 2017, the state received a $1 million grant to distribute over 8,000 Narcan kits. By July, they were all gone. A second federal grant is currently paying for Narcan in some counties in the state, according to Herb Linn, the Program Director for Collaboration and Communication with the Health Research Center of the School of Public Health at West Virginia University.

Some public health officials say the state is also not spending enough money on long-term treatment facilities that help people wean themselves off the drugs. West Virginia currently has more than 1,100 treatment beds, but an estimated 8.4 percent of residents admit to using illegal drugs in the past month.  

In April 2017, state legislators decided to expand the number of treatment beds in the state, using money the state received from multiple lawsuits against the drug wholesalers that flooded southern West Virginia with opioids. Many say these wholesalers helped fuel the epidemic in the first place. The $20.8 million in funding will go to nine different treatment centers across West Virginia.  But it may still not be enough, some say.

“Addressing opioid overdose deaths requires a multi-pronged approach. We definitely need funding for naloxone, but we also need to expand capacity for drug treatment,” says Dr. Robin Pollini, a researcher for the Injury Control Research Center at West Virginia University.“Many people want drug treatment but can’t get it, which leads to continued drug use and risk of overdose.”  

The nation’s opioid crisis killed more than 60,000 people in 2016, and West Virginia is leading the country in overdose-related deaths with 52 per 100,000 people, compared to 19.8 per 100,000 people nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some overdoses in December 2017 remain unrecorded. Source: West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources

At last count, 909 people died of drug overdoses in West Virginia in 2017 compared to 887 fatal overdoses in 2016, according to data released by the state Health Statistics Center. 

Some critics even suggest that an over-reliance on Narcan is making the problem worse, primarily because people addicted to opioids feel a greater sense of impunity.

Researchers at the University of Virginia and University of Wisconsin recently reported similar findings. The researchers examined the time period before and after different Narcan-access laws were put into place, such as allowing anyone to buy Narcan in a pharmacy without a prescription.

They found a 14 percent increase in opioid-related mortality in the Midwest, which they attributed to expanded Narcan access. However, this study was reported in a working paper, which has not yet been peer-reviewed or accepted by a public health journal, according to the researchers themselves.

Jennifer Doleac, one of the researchers, says they plan to submit it to journals soon. 

Several public health experts were quick to criticize the study.  They said these findings might encourage cities and states to pull back from administering Narcan to the public. 

“It takes a simplistic approach to the whole issue,” said Linn.  

However, Linn and others agree that the state needs to build up its treatment facilities as a more permanent solution to the drug epidemic.

“We’ve got to keep the naloxone coming, and then we got to figure out how to build up treatment and recovery,” said Linn. “People are still dying in high numbers.”

Recovering addicts themselves argue for a more systematic approach.

“I don’t believe any amount of money going to Narcan is going to solve this epidemic fully,” says John Dower, Director of Operations at Morgantown Sober Living, a home for recovering addicts. “But you can’t put a person in a bed if they are not alive to get there.”