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Dr. Matthew Christiansen will replace Bob Hansen, who retired this week, as the head the state Office of Drug Control Policy, Gov. Jim Justice announced during Friday’s COVID-19 news briefing.

Christiansen’s appointment is immediate, according to a news release from the state Department of Health and Human Resources. He will spend the next month transitioning into his new role.

“Combating our state’s drug crisis has been a number one priority of this administration,” DHHR Secretary Bill Crouch said in the release. “I am pleased that Dr. Christiansen will offer a seamless transition to this most important position. We are very grateful for Bob Hansen’s service to the state and his countless efforts.”

Christiansen holds a bachelor’s degree from Denison University, and earned his medical degree and a Master’s in Public Health from Marshall University.

He currently practices primary care and addiction medicine at Marshall Health, and works as an associate professor at the Department of Family and Community Health, Division of Addiction Sciences, at Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine. Christiansen also heads Ebenezer Medical Outreach, a free clinic in Huntington, according to the release.

“West Virginia’s drug crisis has not taken a break even though we are experiencing a worldwide pandemic,” Justice said in the release. “Luckily, Dr. Christiansen is familiar with West Virginia’s issues and has worked closely with Bob Hansen. I think he’ll step into the job with one-foot running.”

Christiansen will be the fourth person to head the ODCP since it was created by the Legislature in 2017. The first person appointed to lead the agency was Jim Johnson, former Huntington police chief and director of the Huntington Mayor’s Office of Drug Control Policy, in August 2017. He retired in January 2018, and Dr. Michael Brumage briefly held the position before resigning that March.

After Brumage’s resignation, the agency operated without a leader for eight months, until Hansen — who at the time was working as the director of Addiction Services at the Marshall University School of Medicine and who served as CEO of Prestera Center — took the role in December 2018.

Under Hansen’s lead that same month, the agency launched the Governor’s Council on Substance Abuse, Prevention and Treatment, an initiative that was supposed to roll out in 2017 to help determine the best use of state resources in fighting the drug epidemic.

While that didn’t happen, the state did record its highest number of fatal opioid overdoses in 2017 — over 1,000 for the first time ever, according to data from the state DHHR.

Last October, the ODCP released its Substance Use Response Plan for the state, which was comprised of more than a dozen short-term and long-term goals those on the council believed would help with addiction recovery in West Virginia.

While fatal overdoses in West Virginia seemed to slow in 2018 and 2019 according to DHHR data, experts say they may be on the rise again in 2020, in part due to the added stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Preliminary data from the ODCP shows emergency calls and visits to emergency rooms for suspected drug overdoses have been higher the past few months than in previous years. Though final data on fatal overdoses in 2020 won’t be available until next year, those working in addiction services worry about changes in drug use across the state and what new measures will have to be taken.

Opioid use, for example, has been on the decline in West Virginia since 2017, but methamphetamine use is up. This presents a number of obstacles for care, as there aren’t as many resources — like medically assisted treatment — for meth use, and Naloxone, the opioid reversing drug, is ineffective for meth overdoses.

To view the ODCP’s West Virginia Substance Use Response Plan, visit https://helpandhopewv.org/odcp/

Reach Caity Coyne at caity.coyne@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-7939 or follow

@CaityCoyne on Twitter.