Heroin overdoses in W.Va. sap medic resources

Medics respond to two or three heroin overdose calls a day, and two police cruisers are now dispatched to accompany and protect EMS


By Eric Eyre
The Charleston Gazette

KANAWHA COUNTY, W.Va. — Kanawha County’s heroin problem is overwhelming law enforcement agencies and fire departments, a county substance abuse task force learned Wednesday.

The Charleston Fire Department’s paramedics respond to two or three heroin overdose calls a day. Kanawha County’s Metro 911 center now dispatches two police cruisers — to accompany and protect paramedics — for every emergency call involving a patient under 50 who’s unresponsive or in cardiac arrest. Seven out of 10 heroin overdose calls require paramedics to transport people to the hospital.

“It drains resources away from other medical emergencies we’re having,” said Capt. Mark Strickland, a Charleston Fire Department paramedic who spoke at a Kanawha County Commission Substance Abuse Task Force meeting on Wednesday.

The heroin problem has led to an increase in other crimes: break-ins, fights, assaults, stabbings and shootings, law enforcement officers said.

Over the past year, disputes over heroin have sparked five slayings — “somebody ripping off somebody, somebody not paying their debt to their dealer,” said Mike Rutherford, chief deputy at the Kanawha County Sheriff’s Office.

“As far as the county goes, heroin is really a scourge,” said Rutherford, who sits on the substance abuse panel. “Almost everything we do now is heroin.”

Charleston police detective Chris Powell said the heroin problem also is prevalent in the city. “It’s being bought and sold vigorously,” he said.

The rise in heroin overdoses coincides with a statewide crackdown on prescription pain pills, Strickland and other speakers told the task force.

“Law enforcement is shutting down the ‘pill mills,’ but the addicts are still left,” Strickland said. “They look for something, and heroin is readily available. That’s what they’ve gone to.”

Prescription drugs such as oxycodone and hydrocodone are classified as opioids, which relieve pain. Heroin, an illegal “street drug,” also is an opioid.

Over the past year, the West Virginia Board of Pharmacy has been tracking doctors who prescribe an excessive number of pain pills. Pharmacies also remain under watch. Suspicious doctors and pharmacists will be reported to law enforcement authorities — part of a new state law that aims to curb prescription drug abuse.

“It’s not surprising if you squeeze down on the prescription opioids, you’re going to see heroin overdoses,” said David Potters, the pharmacy board’s executive director.

West Virginia has the highest drug overdose death rate in the nation. Heroin overdose deaths have tripled statewide in recent years.

Paramedics use a drug called Narcan to revive unconscious people who overdose on heroin.

“It’s become such a common occurrence that [paramedics] keep two doses of Narcan in the driver’s door,” Strickland said. “When they get out, it’s usually the first thing in their hand.”

Strickland said more substance abuse programs are needed to help heroin addicts.

“I’m not seeing the social service rehabilitation element,” said Strickland, whose paramedics often have to treat the same heroin abuser repeatedly. “We need to bring out more of those resources.”

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©2014 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.)

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