Using 16 years’ worth of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, a report called “Overdose” has identified Wyoming County as the No. 1 county in the nation for prescription drug overdose deaths.
The data, examined by DrugAbuse.com, shows that from 1999 to 2014, Wyoming County had a prescription drug overdose death rate of 54.6 per 100,000 people.
“I know we have a drug problem in Wyoming County,” said Wyoming County Commission President Larry Mathis. “But there’s a drug problem all over the U.S. and the whole state of West Virginia.”
Of the 30 counties identified with the highest rates, 10 counties are in West Virginia, and four southern West Virginia counties were ranked No. 1 through No. 4: Wyoming, McDowell, Boone and Mingo.
Raleigh County came in at No. 14 in the nation and Summers County was close behind at No. 16.
Other states with top ranking counties included Kentucky, Virginia, Utah, New Mexico, North Carolina and Tennessee.
“Perhaps most strikingly,” the report stated, “the rate of overdoses in West Virginia caused by prescription drugs was about 8.6 times higher in 2014 than in 1999, and annually rose an average of 26.6 percent between those years, which was well above the national year-on-year change of 7.8 percent.”
According to the West Virginia Health Statistics Center, opioid-related overdose deaths climbed steadily from 147 in 2001 to 628 in 2015. The overdose death total peaked in Wyoming County in 2011 with 26 fatalities.
Wyoming County Sheriff C.S. Parker said overdose deaths have decreased the past few years. Last year, the Health Statistics Center reported 16 opioid-related overdose deaths. Parker said the county has seen only two this year.
“I think it’s due to enforcement, and doctors have eased up on writing so many prescriptions.”
With fewer prescriptions, fewer opioid drugs are available on the streets, which has caused many areas to see an uptick in heroin sales and use. Parker said in the county’s last drug roundup, several heroin-related charges were made.
“That’s the first we’d seen down here,” Parker said. I’m sure it’s here, but it’s not that big yet in our county.”
The CDC recently identified 220 counties in the U.S. that are at risk for HIV and hepatitis C outbreaks related to the injection of prescription opioids. Wyoming County ranked No. 16 on the list.
According to September 2015 material from Help-4-WV, 17 counties in the state do not offer any type of substance abuse treatment or recovery services, including three on the list with the highest overdose rates — Wyoming, Summers and Lincoln.
Wyoming County Drug Court Director Angela Johnson said the drug court program, which has been in operation for two years, must outsource its participants to Charleston, Huntington or Beckley for treatment options.
Both Parker and Mathis said they don’t understand why treatment facilities aren’t being created in Wyoming County. Mathis said treatment options are available in the state’s larger cities, but options are limited or nonexistent in more rural areas.
“We desperately need something for the people on drugs in Wyoming County,” Mathis said. “Sen. (Joe) Manchin is working hard on this drug addiction in West Virginia. He’s been to Wyoming County on a couple occasions, but it seems like there’s no federal or state money out there for it.”
Mathis points to unemployment as one of the county residents’ primary reasons for turning to drugs.
“Coal is all Wyoming County has … We have nothing else in Wyoming County.”
Like Mathis, many residents have lived in the county their entire lives. They don’t want to leave their families or their homes, but their frustration grows as they are unable to find work.
“The frustration not being able to find a good job has a lot to do with drug problems in West Virginia,” he said. “If people were working, I don’t think drugs would be as bad.”
Sheriff Parker pointed out that most of Wyoming County’s crimes are drug-related in some way, from breaking and entering to burglaries — “They steal stuff and get rid of it for a pill.”
Mathis said he welcomes any ideas on how to bring treatment facilities to the area.
“If anyone’s got any answers … I’d be glad to listen and do all we can to get one built.”
— Email: [email protected]; follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren