HUNTINGTON — Though still among the highest in the nation, the pace at which non-fatal overdoses are suffered in Cabell County continues to gradually slow, according to records logged by Cabell County EMS, progressing a now five-month downward trend into 2018.
In January, 113 overdoses, or 3.6 per day, were reported in Cabell County. By comparison, the county averaged 152 overdoses per month, or 5.2 per day, through 2017 — amassing a record-shattering 1,831 for the year.
Should the current pace continue through 2018, Cabell County would experience around 1,356 overdoses by the end of the year: nearly 500 overdoses less than 2017, but still the second-highest single year total.
"We'll certainly take any downward trend we can get, but our overall numbers are still very high," said Connie Priddy, Cabell County EMS compliance officer.
January is the fourth month in a row overdose totals have fallen in Cabell County — a trend first responders began noticing in September. The county averaged 4.5 overdoses per day in the last quarter of 2017, compared to 5.3 per day in the first 9 months of the year when the county was on pace for nearly 2,000 overdoses.
The slow, but steady decline is further defined by comparing the last two Decembers. In December 2016, Cabell County suffered 175 overdoses, or around 5.6 per day. In December 2017, the county recorded 118 overdoses, or 3.8 per day.
More than 20 percent of West Virginia's overdose deaths last year were suffered in Cabell County, which led the state's 55 counties for a second consecutive year with a record 152 deaths in 2017, according to the latest data from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center.
Overdoses deaths are recorded by the state medical examiner's office, while non-fatal overdoses are recorded by EMS at the county level.
As for the declining non-fatal overdose rate, no defining research or statistics exists to explain it, Priddy said, and there is likely no single reason behind it.
Increased positive attention to the problem by the Huntington's care providers, including the city's Quick Response Teams launched in December, may begin to be having an impact.
"We're hoping we're taking the first steps," Priddy said. "Again, we don't know if this (downward) trend continues, but we'll certainly take it."
It's possible those addicted have begun using more methamphetamine, she added, which — while destructive in its own way — is less likely than opioids to trigger an overdose.
Of Cabell County's 152 overdose deaths in 2017, 35 of the victims had traces of methamphetamine in their bodies. That was more than twice the number in 2016, when 12 victims died with the drug in their bodies. Nearly all of West Virginia's overdose victims die with multiple drugs in their bodies, 90 percent of which die with traces of fentanyl.
Aside from overdoses, Cabell County also experienced a decline in acute Hepatitis C cases, said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, physician director at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department. The county reported only four cases in 2017, down from 10 cases in 2016.
The health department manages the county's Harm Reduction Program, including its syringe exchange, which was established to provide sterile needles with the hopes of abating the spread of bloodborne diseases, like hepatitis, through needle-sharing.
"It is premature to comment on trends in preliminary data, but I am hopeful that we will soon have adequately valid data to report," Kilkenny said. "Certainly, a lot of agencies have put a lot of energy into achieving improvements, and only long-term evaluation will verify the impacts, but it looks like what we've all been doing is helping."
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Average overdose calls per day in Cabell County
The average number of overdose calls per day in Cabell County grew over the past several years but has declined in the past five months.
2018 (Jan.) 3.6
2017 (Sept.-Dec.): 4.5
2017 (Jan.-Aug.): 5.3
Source: Cabell County Emergency Medical Services