CHARLESTON — The number of West Virginia overdose deaths climbed to more than 1,000 for the first time in 2017, according to the most recent data from the West Virginia Health Statistics Center.
Of the 1,011 overdose deaths recorded so far from 2017, 870 — about 86 percent — involved an opioid. This is about a 15 percent increase from 2016, when 759 people — out of 890 — suffered fatal overdoses related to opioid use.
Preliminary counts for 2018 show that in the first six months of the year 498 West Virginians have suffered fatal overdoses, according to a news release from the state Department of Health and Human Resources. While the number is still growing, officials at the DHHR believe the rate of growth has slowed, the release reads.
While opioids still have a hold on West Virginians struggling through the drug epidemic, the most recent numbers — which are from an Aug. 15 analysis — may hint at another problem growing in the state. Between 2016 and 2017, the number of individuals who died from overdoses related to amphetamine and methamphetamine use more than doubled.
In 2016, a reported 117 people fatally overdosed using amphetamines, compared to 241 in 2017. For meth, 107 died in 2016, compared to 229 last year.
In 2012, 19 people in the state died from an overdose involving amphetamines and 11 died from meth. Every year since — save for a small dip from 2013 to 2014 — that number has nearly doubled.
Meth addicts are more likely to commit violent crimes, and they’re more resistant to entering drug treatment programs, according to police and health care workers.
“We are concerned, as law enforcement tells us, there is a lot more meth happening,” Dr. Rahul Gupta, state public health commissioner, told the Charleston Gazette-Mail in April. “It’s a concerning trend.”
The overdose information is taken from causes of death reported on death certificates certified by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
The HSC warns that many overdose deaths occur from use of more than one drug.
The numbers for 2017 are not final and are likely to rise as more death certificates and causes of death are analyzed. The data account for all types of overdoses — accidents, suicides, homicides and those of an undetermined intent.
On a county level, Cabell, Wayne, Logan, Kanawha and Berkeley counties led the state in the number of fatal overdoses per 100,000 residents, according to the overdose statistics and population counts from the U.S. Census Bureau.
There was also a notable jump in the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the state — 591 were recorded in 2017, as compared to 366 in 2016. In April, it was reported that fatal overdoses with fentanyl, which is an opioid that is 100 times stronger than prescription morphine, was a prominent cause for 2017’s increases.
Heroin-related overdose deaths also saw a minor jump — up to 267 last year, compared to 257 in 2016.
In total, 18 counties saw a decrease in overdose deaths within their borders between 2016 and 2017. Five of those counties saw a decrease of more than five fatalities: Mingo, Wyoming, Mercer, Monongalia and Wood counties.
Since 2012, the total number of fatal drug overdoses in the state has increased by 81 percent. West Virginia has consistently led the country in the rate of overdose deaths, a statistic that is unlikely to change given the most recent numbers.