Police officers from a small town in West Virginia recently reported 26 heroin overdoses in five hours, a tragic peak in the Appalachian region’s opioid epidemic. However, in something of a silver lining, only two people died, thanks to massive expansions in the availability of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan (naloxone) across the region over the last year, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Huntington, West Virginia, a small college town into which flow drugs from Detroit and Columbus, Ohio, has one of the nation’s highest opioid overdose rates. West Virginia as a whole reports that 35 out of every 100,000 residents die of opioid overdoses each year, and Huntington’s overdose rate is more than three times higher than the state’s.
According to emergency health workers, the county where Huntington is located normally sees about 18 to 20 overdose calls a week. However, on August 15, 2016, between 3:21 p.m. and 8:33 p.m., emergency medical teams responded to 26 calls regarding overdoses. Investigators think it’s likely that a potent batch of heroin had just surfaced in Huntington and was quickly distributed and consumed across the small town.
Overdose outbreaks are nothing new in the United States, with Huntington’s crisis closely mirroring an event in Sacramento County last year in which at least 11 people died of heroin overdoses in just one day. Health authorities say that in many of these crises, the heroin responsible is laced with powerful additives, such as the prescription opioid fentanyl (a drug 40 times more powerful than street opioids), which can dramatically raise the risk of an overdose.
Despite the scale of Huntington’s crisis, health workers reported only two people dead from an opioid overdose that day. The widespread availability of Narcan to emergency first responders, police, fire crews and the public was likely responsible for the dozens of lives saved.
Over the last few years, the small city has expanded its antidrug efforts to include overdose treatment, needle-exchange programs and expanded naloxone access. The decision to do so was a direct response to reports showing that opioids had become the third leading cause of death in the Huntington area.
Local harm reduction advocates say the region’s plan seems to be working. In 2016, overdose deaths have dropped up to 30 percent in the area, and needle sharing has plummeted among drug users, potentially preventing dozens of new infections of the hepatitis C virus (HCV) and HIV in the community.