(NewsNation) — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says overdose deaths hit a record high of 107,000 last year. It’s now the leading cause of injury-related death in the U.S., with an average of one overdose death every five minutes.
As a member of the Mingo County West Virginia Quick Response Team, Keith Blankenship has seen the tragic side of drug addiction. His team is tasked with treating overdoses each day, and he says the crisis impacts all ages and backgrounds.
“Everybody in our area knows somebody that’s related to a substance abuse issue of some sort,” Blankenship said.
As a health care provider in the central Appalachian Mountains, Dr. Teresa Tyson shares Blankenship’s sentiment. She says two years ago, her area of southwest Virginia was first in the nation for per capita people using prescribed opioids, with addiction plaguing the region.
“Unfortunately, in the area, we have so many. In the local school system, where my children attended school, 70% are being raised by either a grandparent or a great grandparent, believe it or not,” Tyson said.
Blankenship believes the COVID-19 pandemic worsened the crisis in many communities.
“We know COVID has had a major influence on people’s mental capabilities and they’re turning to other solutions,” Blankenship said.
Matthew McFarland is going on seven years sober. For years, addiction ruled his life. He agreed that being separated from others during the pandemic may have made recovery more difficult for some people trying to better their lives.
“I think being separated from people, you know, being unable to attend 12 Step groups and having a community of support certainly makes recovery harder,” McFarland explained. “So, I mean, there were some online platforms that came out during the pandemic, that you were able to at least talk to other people. But, you know, there’d be weeks at a time where you wouldn’t even leave your house. So you can imagine not having that support, you know, how challenging that can be for somebody.”
Wednesday, the CDC quantified the crisis. Just last year, the agency says more than 107,000 people died of overdoses across the country, marking the highest total ever.
“It is heartbreaking. It’s unprecedented in the history of this nation,” White House Drug Policy Czar Dr. Rahul Gupta told NewsNation’s Tom Dempsey. “Frankly, it’s unacceptable for us to see this level of rise because this equals an American perishing every five minutes around the clock.”
Officials say fentanyl is to blame in more than half of the overdose death cases. The CDC says the fastest rises in drug overdose deaths remain among minorities.
“Fentanyl is pervasive. It’s in communities across the country in all 50 states, and it is very lethal. That’s the reason that it’s important for us to act and act with a sense of urgency, for communities to mobilize to make sure that our kids or young people, but also those at high risk, are aware that fentanyl is very pervasive, both in counterfeit pills, but also other drug supply that often be looked upon as methamphetamine, cocaine,” Gupta said.
In response to the heart-wrenching numbers, Gupta highlighted the impact addiction programs and access to harm reduction tools such as fentanyl testing strips, emergency overdose treatment and free syringe exchanges could bring to the fight against the opioid crisis.
“We want to be able to meet people where they are, offer them help such as treatment and make sure that we’re able to get the help to people when they need it, where they need it,” Gupta said.
On the subject of fentanyl strips, critics say they may actually encourage drug use. But addiction medicine specialist Dr. James Besante believes it’s better to help someone before it’s too late.
“The thing to remember is that dead people don’t get a chance to recover. So the most important thing that we’re doing are keeping people alive. The overdose crisis is worsening, we’re headed in the wrong direction, harm reduction measures save lives and nothing else. Overdose reversal kits, like Narcan, (are) a life saving drug that empowers individuals. And it really restores a sense of hope in communities that are struggling with the drug epidemic as we see it today.
“Fentanyl test strips are another way to empower individuals. Remember, recovery, It’s not a one size fits all. Recovery is a very individualized journey. And for some people that’s nonlinear, and they’re stopping points along the way. And for a community for providers, we have to be opening to open to anyone’s recovery journey,” Besante said.
How can things get better? Besante says it boils down to hope, and access to care.
“The most important thing to remember is that substance use disorders, addiction are highly amenable to treatment, they are chronic diseases. Sometimes we have the sense of hopelessness, and one of the most important things we can infuse into addiction is the sense of hope, that there are treatments out there that work.
“Unfortunately, far too few people are given access to evidence based treatments. Only about one in 10 individuals (who) would benefit from treatment in the United States of America with a substance use disorder are gaining access to that care. So part of this has to be just expanding access to care we know works,” Besante said.
For now, many will remain on the front lines hoping more help will come soon to save more lives. Those facing mental or substance use disorders may call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration National Helpline at 800-662-HELP (4357) or find additional resources here.