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As pill prescriptions rose, so did ODs

HUNTINGTON — Opioid overdose deaths skyrocketed as prescriptions for opioid pain pills increased to five western West Virginia counties over a seven-year period, according to data released this month as part of litigation against drug makers and distributors.

More than 148 million pills were shipped to those five counties — Kanawha, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam and Wayne — from 2006 to 2012, according to data kept by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

Opioid overdose rates in Mason and Wayne counties about tripled when comparing average rates from 2008-12 and 2013-17. The numbers nearly doubled in Kanawha and Putnam counties, and the number jumped 1 1/2 times in Lincoln County.

Overall, West Virginia saw an average opioid overdose mortality rate of 34.4 per 100,000 population during the 2008-12 period. The number jumped to 56 from 2013-17.

For the Appalachian region —

which includes 13 states stretching from New York to Mississippi — the average was 25 from 2008-12 and 36.7 between 2013 and 2017. For the entire United States, it jumped from 18 to 23.

The data came from the Drug Enforcement Administration's Automation of Reports and Consolidated Orders System (ARCOS) and was released to HD Media, which owns The Herald-Dispatch and Charleston Gazette-Mail, and to The Washington Post this month after a year-long battle in which the drug companies and DEA wanted to keep the data out of the public eye.

ARCOS is a DEA database that compiles transactions made by drug manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies.

The data had been turned over last year to plaintiff attorneys in more than 1,800 cases alleging the drug firms caused the opioid epidemic by flooding communities with opioid pain pills before slowing down the pill flow and allegedly starting the opioid epidemic currently plaguing the country.

Those who are addicted to prescription opioid painkillers are 40 times more likely to become addicted to heroin, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the reduction in the amount of pills available caused those struggling with substance use disorder to turn to illegal drugs, the attorneys say.

U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing those federal cases, has released data collected from 2006 to the end of 2012 and could release more recent data after hearing arguments from both sides at a later date. He had previously blocked all data from being released, but the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeals said his previous ruling had been an abuse of power.

According to the CDC, opioid prescriptions per capita increased 7.3% from 2007-12, and health care providers wrote 259 million prescriptions for opioid pain medication in 2012. It's estimated that 11% of adults experience daily pain, the CDC said.

More than 853 million hydrocodone and oxycodone opioid pain pills were dispensed in West Virginia from 2006-12. With a population of about 1.8 million, that amounts to about 67 pills per West Virginian per year.

Of the 148 million pills shipped to Kanawha, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam and Wayne counties, 67.8 million (46%) were manufactured by Spec-Gx. Cardinal Health distributed nearly a quarter of the pills — 32.7 million — while Fruth pharmacies sold 17 million (11%) of the pills at five of its stores. Rite Aid distributed 11.7 million (8%) at five of its stores.

Lynne M. Fruth, president and chairwoman of the board of Fruth Pharmacy, declined to comment Wednesday on the data. Some of its stores have been among the leading dispensers of the prescription drugs in some other counties, too, according to the ARCOS data. The pharmacy chain has not been accused of any wrongdoing and is not named in any of the federal lawsuits as of July 2019.

Fruth Pharmacy has been involved in the drug recovery community for years, offering naloxone training, being the first in the state to remove pseudoephedrine — a key ingredient in meth — off its shelves in 2013 and giving scholarships to participants in drug recovery programs, among other things.

Chris Krese, spokesman for the National Association of Chain Drug Stores (NACDS), cautioned readers in making conclusions from the ARCOS data about the role that pharmacies play.

"It does not lend itself to clear interpretations, and it is leading to some incorrect conclusions that are harmful to entire communities," he said. "Pharmacies have a long-standing and ongoing commitment to working as part of the solution to opioid abuse and addiction."

NACDS President and CEO Steven C. Anderson said in a news release that pharmacies are a crucial part in resolving opioid abuse and make important decisions every day about patient care.

"Pharmacies' work in this area includes compliance programs; drug disposal; patient education; security initiatives; fostering naloxone access; stopping illegal online drug-sellers and rogue clinics; philanthropic programs; and more," he said.

Of the five counties examined in this story, Mason County has the highest average of pills per citizen per year at 82, with a total number of about 15.5 million pills being sent to about 26,800 residents. Mason County had a deadly overdose rate average of 65.5 per 100,000 population between 2013 and 2017, up from an average of about 23 from 2008-12.

About 90.3 million prescription pain pills were sent to Kanawha County, which has a population of about 180,600. That equates to about 71 pills per person per year. That county's fatal overdose rate average jumped from 34 in the 2008-12 period to an average of 67 from 2013-17.

Lincoln County — population of about 20,800 — saw nearly 9 million prescription opioid pills shipped to the county, amounting to about 60 pills per person per year.

Between 2011 and 2014, Lincoln County had the state's second-highest rate of neonatal abstinence syndrome, a group of conditions caused when a baby withdraws from certain drugs, with 51 cases per 1,000 hospital births. Its average overdose death rate per 100,000 population jumped from 53 from 2008-12 to 75 between 2013 and 2017.

During those seven years, 13.7 million pills were shipped to Wayne County — population of about 40,200 — or about 48 per person per year. Wayne County saw its average overdose rate per 100,000 population triple from 34 between 2008 and 2012 to 105 between 2013 and 2017.

In seven years, about 19.5 million pills were shipped to Putnam County — population of 56,800 — or 49 pills per person per year. Putnam County's average opioid overdose death rate per 100,000 was 44 between 2013 and 2017, a jump from 23 between 2008 and 2012.

Follow reporter Courtney Hessler at Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

There were 148 million opioid pain pills shipped to Kanawha, Lincoln, Mason, Putnam and Wayne counties in 2006-12.


American Duchess makes inaugural stop in Huntington
Riverboat smaller but more luxe than sister boat American Queen

HUNTINGTON — The American Duchess paddlewheel riverboat, sister ship to the American Queen, made its first stop in Huntington on Thursday at Harris Riverfront Park.

Passengers roamed through the city during the afternoon, on one of three motor coaches, to explore Pullman Square, where West Virginia artisans were set up; Heritage Station; Marshall University; Ritter Park; Central City; and more. A premium tour also was available, which took guests to Heritage

Farm Museum & Village and the Huntington Museum of Art.

Local residents were invited to wave them off at 5 p.m., after passengers had returned to the boat to begin the journey to their next stop in Augusta, Georgia.

This was the American Duchess' first stop on its nine-day cruise, which began in Cincinnati. The boat is part of the American Queen Steamboat Co.

Tyson Compton, president of the Huntington Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, said he hoped visitors enjoyed their visit to the Jewel City.

"We just hope that they have a good time and have a good experience," Compton said. "It's interesting because they're always in a good mood, in general, the folks who are passengers on the boat.

"And of course we love to show off the city, and they always, always talk about how friendly people are here, which I love, of course, because we hope they go back to their homes, wherever they're from, with good things to say about Huntington, and maybe come back or send their friends and family here."

Though the river cruise vessel is smaller than the American Queen, it is an all-suite riverboat, meaning it is more luxurious and has bigger rooms for the 160 passengers on board.

"This riverboat is special because she's one of our luxury cruisers, pretty much the only one, because most of her rooms are a two-story loft," Robert Shaw, a crew member, said.

"This being our first stop in Huntington ever, I do hope that the guests have a good time because a lot of the tours that are offered in the particular area will be the first time as well," Shaw said.

Both the American Duchess and American Queen are the same age and will turn 25 next year. Features on board the American Duchess include a grand dining room, The River Club & Terrace dining option, a grand lobby that can accommodate concerts, a full bar and sundeck areas.

Richard Bryant, chief mate on the American Duchess, said there are different feels to each boat.

"The Duchess has large, spacious rooms, passageways and a more luxurious, streamlined feel, where the American Queen has the old-time kind of steamboat feel to it," Bryant said. "It's bigger and can fit up to 400 passengers."

Bryant said he's come to Huntington before on the American Queen, and his favorite part of the city is the cupcakes at Paula Vega Cakes.

"Whenever I come here, I usually get cupcakes from Paula Vega because I can walk over there," Bryant said. "And I can bring them back to the wheelhouse, and everyone at the wheelhouse loves cupcakes. I like being able to walk around. There's a lot of shops and stores around here, and a lot of small river towns don't have the economy that Huntington seems to have. It's really cool."

Jackie, a passenger on the American Duchess residing in Ohio, said she lived in West Virginia as a child, so Thursday's visit was all about reminiscing and rediscovering the state she hasn't seen since childhood. Jackie also shared what she loves about the riverboat.

"My favorite thing is being within the United States and being able to stop at certain towns and things on the rivers in the United States," she said. "The other is the boat itself, that it's smaller, more intimate, and it's very well appointed, with good food, good wine."


'Belle in the Well' mystery of '81 solved
Body of woman found in Chesapeake cistern 38 years ago is ID'd

IRONTON — Investigators in Lawrence County say they have been able to identify a woman's body found in a cistern in Chesapeake in 1981.

According to a news release from the Lawrence County Coroner's Office, the 38-year mystery was solved using DNA identification. However, officials aren't disclosing the identity until early next week.

A news conference is scheduled for Monday, July 29, at the Bowman Auditorium on Ohio University's Southern Campus at 1804 Liberty Ave. in Ironton. That's when involved agencies will release the identification and age of the woman. They will also give updates on the investigation process used to make the identification.

Agencies represented at the news conference will be the Lawrence County Coroner's Office, the Lawrence County Sheriff's Office, the Lawrence County Prosecutor's Office and the DNA Doe Project.

According to the DNA Doe Project's website, "Belle in the Well," aka Chesapeake Jane Doe, is the name given to a Jane Doe who was found in a cistern, or what some called a rural well, in Windsor Township in Lawrence County on April 22, 1981.

A cistern is a watertight receptacle for holding liquids, usually water, and is distinguished from wells by its waterproof linings.

The woman was found weighted down by a rope around her neck that was tied to a cinder block. She had been strangled.

Based on the absence of her 12-year molars and some evidence of gum recession, Belle's age was estimated at between 30 and 60 years old. She had a noticeable overbite. She was 5 feet, 4 inches tall and weighed about 140 pounds.

The woman was found wearing a pair of gray flannel pants and a lightweight shirt

under a gray pullover. She also wore a red cable-knit cardigan sweater, with rubber bands around her wrists. The only items found on her body were the key to a locker at a Greyhound terminal in Huntington, a bus ticket, a pay stub and a Jerry Falwell commemorative coin.

Authorities said those leads had not been useful in identifying the woman. Because of the advanced state of decomposition, her facial features were not recognizable and no fingerprints were available.

In May 2018, then-Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine and Lawrence County Coroner Dr. Benjamin Mack unveiled a new forensic facial reconstruction of the woman.

On Thursday, officials said they were able to get positive DNA identification by matching a sample of the woman's DNA with DNA samples from the woman's family members.

Officials did not say whether they may have any leads on any possible suspects in her death.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.