MARTINSBURG - Heroin - from the growing number of users and overdoses, to a recent increase in traffickers, coupled with too few addiction treatment options- is having an devastating impact in Berkeley County.
In fact, the magnitude of the county's overdose problem is so severe - based on comparing the same population figures- that it leads metropolitan areas in Maryland, including Baltimore City.
That's just one of the conclusions of a federal report - "Heroin Treatment Needs Assessment for Berkeley County, West Virginia" -released Thursday by the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.
Berkeley County received this HIDTA designation in September 2014. At that time, it joined 17 other state counties with this designation, which means they receive additional federal resources to address rising drug use rates and reduce drug abuse.
For example, 2014 data in the report shows 33 heroin-related overdose deaths in Montgomery County, 26 in Frederick County, 24 in Berkeley County and 21 in Washington County, as well as 192 in Baltimore City.
But those overdose numbers take on a different significance when taking into account population size and then comparing them.
"When taking into account population size for these counties, the number of overdoses per 100,000 people is estimated to be the highest for Berkeley County, followed by Washington County, Frederick County and Montgomery County, respectively," the report states.
"In 2014, Berkeley County had approximately 71 percent as many fatal overdoses per 100,000 people as Baltimore City," it continues.
CAPITO SEEKS ANSWERS
Officials say the 27-page report - which included various graphs and tables illustrating the county's growing heroin problem - stemmed primarily from the increase in heroin overdoses, coupled with the drug prevention summit hosted in April by Sen. Shelley Moore Capito to spotlight the growing opioid issue.
At that time, a large crowd of stakeholders - including law enforcement, medical professionals, counselors, business representatives, citizens and elected officials -who'd rallied to discuss the problem found few answers as the discussion progressed during the afternoon session.
Capito, R-W.Va., said that was a turning point for her - especially since hard numbers and data seemed almost impossible to locate.
Good timing, combined with hard work, resulted in the report - which also provides detailed recommendations for combating the area's heroin epidemic - which can serve as a kind of "blue print" for local leaders fighting this problem, Capito said.
"At the time of the summit, we knew generally speaking that the problem was escalating, and that people were more aware of it. But I really have to give HIDTA officials - especially Tom Carr, Ruth Phillips and Peggy Preston - credit for not only following up on the situation, but really digging to get the numbers that tell the story much more clearly," Capito said Thursday afternoon in a telephone interview.
"They have generated a very professional, and compelling report, that I think everyone in Berkeley County is going to want to read," she said, adding that it notes Berkeley County has been experiencing an increase in the number of heroin-related overdoses for several years.
LACK OF HEROIN TREATMENT OPTIONS
HIDTA officials were especially surprised - especially as they conducted more research -about the local lack of addiction treatment, care and recovery options, Capito said.
As a result, the increase in heroin-related overdoses may be a "reflection of inadequate resources for prevention and treatment measures," the report states.
It also indicates local trends for both felony and misdemeanor cases related to heroin have "been described as increasing over approximately the last five years," it states.
"We don't have the basics, much less what is needed to provide a continuum of care in Berkeley County. They said that once they dug into the situation, they realized there really is none," she said.
One of the report findings included the need for implementing evidence-based prevention and treatment programs. A spectrum of treatment services include early intervention, outpatient, intensive outpatient, residential and medically-managed, according to the report.
"Berkeley County is missing three out of the five levels of care, with limited access to intensive outpatient treatment," the report states.
Other major recommendations included the development of a proposed recovery center and also implementing new drug courts.
Overall, this is also a "need to develop a comprehensive infrastructure" to facilitate the implementation of an effective strategy for addressing the county's heroin problem, the report states.
A BRIGHT SPOT: FORWARD-THINKING
Despite all of the work that will be required to address the multifaceted heroin epidemic, federal officials believe there are some local efforts that will go a long ways toward helping create a "comprehensive structure to develop and implement an effective strategy," the report states.
"The process begins with leadership, such as Sen. Capito's April summit. Fortunately, there is leadership coming from the Berkeley County Council. County Council President Doug Copenhaver, council member Dan Dulyea and county administrator Alan Davis are taking steps to develop and implement a strategy," it states.
"Under their direction the county has begun the process to purchase a building to be renovated and used as a recovery center. They envision the structure to house a full range of rehabilitative services: Substance abuse counseling, family counseling, recovery support groups, jobs and educational counseling," it continues.
Various agencies - including education, health, law enforcement, judges and businesses - are being included in the county's comprehensive strategy, according to the report.
"They realize this effort will require a great deal of coordination," it states.