Jason Cuffee was a local hero. He was a standout athlete in high school and had a good career in front of him, working as a Charleston firefighter and medic.
He died of a drug overdose last month while on duty at the Oakwood Road fire station. He was 27.
It’s a painful reminder that the drug crisis that has afflicted West Virginia disproportionately for decades can claim anyone. It’s not just the poor or the down and out. It’s not just the people in what is deemed the “bad part of town” or the more untamed rural hollows where the economy has gone belly up and there’s seemingly nothing better to do. It’s everywhere, and anyone can become a victim of addiction.
Sadly, this isn’t new information. The substances change, but the problem remains the same. When heroin-related overdoses were spiking in Huntington, starting in 2014, city and community officials who banded together to address the problem began to realize that addiction didn’t respect social spheres or income levels.
Jan Rader, a Huntington nurse, EMT and firefighter who is now the city’s fire chief, described the phenomenon of functioning addicts — people who held high-level positions of responsibility at their jobs and were respected community members but relied on a bump of heroin to get them through the day.
While public health and government officials are more focused on COVID-19 at the moment, and rightly so, Cuffee’s death tells West Virginians that the state’s reigning public health crisis also is still very much an issue. And it’s getting worse during the pandemic.
As Caity Coyne reported in the Gazette-Mail earlier this summer, calls to emergency services for overdoses were up almost 50% in May alone, compared to the same time in 2019. Overdoses in Kanawha County were up by about 400%. A pandemic that is treated with isolation separates those in recovery from the services they are used to, and presents a greater barrier to those who might seek help.
The solution remains elusive, as it has been long before the coronavirus struck. Community and city efforts, along with drug courts and state support, are crucial. A better economy, with more opportunities, would probably make inroads, as well, but it’s no cure.
It took a long time for the drug crisis to get its tentacles within reach of every West Virginia community and home. It will take a long time to sever them — long after COVID-19 is a bitter memory.