COVID-19 has dominated public health concerns for the past 14 months. While national, state and local health officials have focused on it, previous concerns have been almost forgotten. That can no longer be the case.
As noted by Gazette-Mail reporter Caity Coyne last week, fatal drug overdoses are on the rise in West Virginia after two consecutive years of decreases. Preliminary data show 1,275 state residents suffered fatal overdoses last year. That was a 45% increase over 2019, and it set a record in a state and region that has received national attention for overdoses and its innovative response programs.
Opioid overdoses returned to 2017 levels last year, with 85% of all fatal overdoses in the state involving an opioid.
While disturbing, the increase in overdose deaths was not unexpected. Last year, local health officials warned that their interaction with people seeking help for their addictions was hampered by COVID-19 measures. In Cabell and Kanawha counties, that involved an increase in HIV cases.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labeled the recent uptick in Kanawha County HIV cases the “most concerning” outbreak tied to intravenous drug use in the entire nation.
Last August, Dr. Michael Kilkenny, medical officer at the Cabell-Huntington Health Department, told The Herald-Dispatch reporter Taylor Stuck that HIV treatment is more successful when a person also is receiving treatment for substance use disorder, but the pandemic had also made finding treatment harder.
“Because of COVID-19 and safety measures required to protect patients and the staff, contact is limited. So the visits are shorter and less frequent. And this is a population that doesn’t really have the kind of telephone access others have, so the ways to stay in touch are limited. We are dependent on that personal interaction,” Kilkenny said.
Huntington has had a model program for reaching and helping people with addictions. Because of Senate Bill 334, which was passed by the West Virginia Legislature this session and signed by the governor last week, Huntington’s program will end soon. SB 334 disbands all existing harm reduction programs and requires them to apply to the state Office for Health Facility Licensure and Certification to continue. Programs will need support from the majority of the county commission and the majority of the governing body of a municipality.
Programs must offer a full array of harm reduction services, such as referrals to treatment and HIV testing, and they must operate toward a goal of turning in a used syringe to receive a new one. A West Virginia ID will be required, and syringes must be “unique” to the program.
Public health officials say the ID requirement will make it more difficult for people to access services they need.
But the time for that debate has passed. SB 334 is the law.
With people being vaccinated, the tide has turned against COVID-19, although it’s still around and doing its damage. Just ask the high school basketball teams disqualified from the state tournament.
Bottom line: Other community health problems have not gone away while COVID-19 has dominated the public’s attention. Overdoses, addiction, HIV and other longstanding problems remain with us and, sadly, have gotten worse. They must not be forgotten.