HUNTINGTON — As the country stayed home in an attempt to curb the new coronavirus last year, overdoses and overdose deaths spiked, including in West Virginia.
The same is true for Cabell County, but public health leaders hope the hard work done before the pandemic to reduce the number of overdoses overall will cushion the county from the worst blows.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a health network advisory at the end of December reporting large increases of overdose death from synthetic opioids from March through May of 2020.
The most recent provisional data available from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics indicate that approximately 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020. It is the largest number of drug overdoses for a 12-month period ever recorded.
After declining 4.1% from 2017 to 2018, the number of overdose deaths increased 18.2% from the 12 months ending in June 2019 to the 12 months ending in May 2020.
Data for 2020 is not yet available at the state level, but Dr. Matthew Christiansen, director of the state Office of Drug Control Policy, said they are hearing from community partners throughout the state that there were significant increases in mental health issues, including substance use relapse, overdose and overdose fatalities.
Suspected overdose calls increased in Cabell County by 14% from 2019, according to data from Cabell County EMS. This follows a steady decline of 52% from 2017 to 2019.
“It was a little disheartening,” said Connie Priddy, compliance officer for Cabell EMS and coordinator of Huntington’s Quick Response Team (QRT).
The year started off good, Priddy said. Numbers stayed low through April. In April, all EMS calls were down, including for suspected overdoses.
When the first stay-at-home order was implemented in March, the QRT tried to continue to operate, but Priddy said after about two weeks they realized there was no way to reduce personal contact.
After a quiet April, May exploded.
“Quickly, the team said, ‘We’ve got to go back out there,’” Priddy said. “‘We’ve got to find a safe way to operate.’ So we put in place a limit of the number of people in a vehicle. We wear PPE. We don’t enter homes, which we usually do. We were realizing that it really is important to have that personal interaction with people.”
The QRT has also done community events, doing naloxone training, HIV testing and even COVID-19 testing.
The number of calls declined slightly in the summer, Priddy said, but it has not returned to pre-pandemic levels.
Other types of calls have also increased. Dead on arrival, or DOA, calls increased across the country. While there have been no official studies done on this yet, anecdotally it’s believed many of these deaths were the result of people afraid to visit a hospital due to the pandemic.
Priddy said comparing just one quarter in 2020 to 2019, there was a 65% increase in DOA calls. Some of these could also be overdoses, but all causes of death in West Virginia are determined by the medical examiner.
Suicide also skyrocketed. While, again, these causes of death are not confirmed, Priddy said most are pretty obvious. From one quarter to another, there was a more than 300% increase in suicide in the county.
“That’s alarming enough,” Priddy said. “Whether we have a scientific study of the data or not, we need to get resources out there.”
Cabell County EMS partnered with St. Mary’s Medical Center and Prestera Center to provide resources for mental health services. Prestera has provided its hotline number to EMS workers to pass out to those they come in contact with. EMS workers can contact St. Mary’s if they themselves need some mental health services after witnessing so much death and trauma.
Along with the QRT’s outreach efforts, the Cabell-Huntington Health Department has increased interventions, many already planned for before the pandemic as part of the state’s plan to combat substance abuse.
“We tried to push more naloxone out,” said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, health officer at the health department. “We also raised awareness and worked to educate regarding this pandemic — awareness of overdose risk and reminders for those who use drugs that can improve their choices and affect their usage.”
Both Kilkenny and Priddy said all efforts suffered from the lack of personal, face-to-face contact.
“We know that loss of connectiveness and stresses regarding mental health can result in relapses, and relapses are times very high risk for overdose and overdose death,” Kilkenny said. “While we’ve already increased awareness, it really will be the end of the pandemic and the ability to be face-to-face again that should see us able to regain the improvement we had over the last couple of years.”
Christiansen said without the interventions pushed recently around the state, many of which, like QRTs, come directly from Huntington, the state would likely be in an even worse position after the pandemic.
“One thing that gives me hope with our addiction response in West Virginia is (Gov. Jim) Justice really prioritized resources in the state,” he said.
Priddy said she hopes a silver lining of the pandemic will be everyone’s renewed realization in the importance of connection.
“We need real people interacting with people,” she said. “We need real resources for mental health. This brought it to light. It may be a good thing that comes out of all that heartache.”
Another good thing? The realization of how important accurate, current data is. Priddy said she hopes lessons learned from collecting COVID-19 data will be implemented in collecting overdose data, which would help with real-time interventions.