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A recipe for disaster: Part 2 of 2

EDITOR’S NOTE: Following is part II of a two-part series on the heroin public health crisis in southern West Virginia.


Bluefield Daily Telegraph

BLUEFIELD, W.Va.  — The drug epidemic in southern West Virginia has morphed into a potential catastrophic health situation, with Mercer and surrounding counties now being labeled at risk for an HIV outbreak, local and national health department agencies report.

Mercer, McDowell and Wyoming counties are three counties of 220 across the nation noted as being susceptible to an HIV outbreak.

The 2nd annual International Overdose Awareness Day event was held at Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center in Princeton recently. Families and friends of overdose victims wrote names and messages on bags and placed a candle inside.
(Bluefield Daily Telegraph photo)
A 2016 report by the Centers for Disease Control listed Wyoming County as No. 16 of the 220 counties at risk, Sgt. J.S. McCarty, with the Southern Regional Drug and Violent Crimes Task Force, said.

“It is a community changing event,” Mercer County Commissioner and Community Connections head Greg Puckett said. “It will kill everything in a community.”

Drug addiction “affects the family, affects the community … it affects everybody,” Tina Borich, chief clinical officer at Southern Highlands, said. “Some people still have a stereotypical image of an addict. But it’s across the board, it’s all walks of life.”

“The drug problem is so bad now it can be anybody at any time,” Puckett said. “We need to take away the stigma of what we see as being an addict.”


Matt Huffman, director of the Legends Treatment Center, works with recovering addicts from across West Virginia.

Those going through the treatment are required to get physicals.

“Once we get them clean, all these health issues start popping up because of the substances they have put into their bodies” Huffman said. “Ninety-five percent of all the consumers test positive for Hepatitis C. Of that 95 percent, 95 percent were IV drug users. The other five percent were alcoholics.

“We have to stop this,” Huffman said. “We have to get in quicker to avoid the health care costs.

“It’s staggering,” Huffman said. “One of my biggest concerns, is that we, as a community, need to get in front of our drug problem and not behind it.

“We need more treatment, but we also need to start using the treatment we have,” Huffman said. “In Mercer County, I can not throw a stone without hitting someone impacted by the drug problem.

“Until we get in front of this epidemic, we’re going to keep losing our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and children,” Huffman said.

Huffman said those who go through treatment and relapse are at high risk of an overdose. “They go out and use the same amount, and there is no tolerance anymore.”

Southern Highlands CEO Lisa Jones, said 2,597 individuals were treated for substance abuse at Southern Highlands in 2016.

“It’s just astronomical,” Jones said. “We have to stop the deaths. We have to stop the overdoses. If you’re an IV drug user, you’re playing Russian Roulette.”

Both Puckett and Jones advocate for a needle exchange program in Mercer County.

“It an education,” Jones said. “We’re trying to do harm reduction. If it were your daughter, your son, would you think about it differently?”

Officials say a needle exchange program could open up communication with addicts.

“A syringe exchange program could get them coming in when you could possibly intervene for treatment,” Puckett said. “it opens up communication. It’s an opportunity for them to come in and have a discussion with a doctor about unprotected sex. it’s an opportunity to educate.”

“There is not a cure for addiction,” Huffman said. “But there is treatment.”


Melanie Danielson, originally of Huntington, operates a female house for CASE of West Virginia on Highland Avenue in Bluefield.

“Two years ago in Huntington, we averaged one overdose death per week,” Danielson said.

Danielson said a recent resident of the Bluefield home died three weeks ago from an overdose death.

“It’s very impactful,” she said, struggling to vocalize with tears evident in her eyes. “There are so many people in West Virginia who die of overdoses, and it’s completely unnecessary because there are ways to get help.

“When it comes to drug use, it’s not a matter of if, but when” Danielson said.


“The drugs are just a part of the problem,” Puckett said. “We need to wake up. Why are we constantly thinking this is OK?

“Take the health impact,” he asked. “This is a life-threatening time. Our very existence as a society is in jeopardy. Our culture is in jeopardy.

“This current generation may be lost,” Puckett said. “The next generation has to be able to pick up the pieces. There’s a reason why people are leaving here, and the ones that stay behind are fighting. We have to have increased accountability, increased safety.

“This is a very scary time,” Puckett said.

“How do we know if we don’t screen?” he asked. “What’s the undiagnosed population?”

Puckett said it costs less money to educate the population than to fix the problem once it becomes an epidemic.

“We need to be doing more outreach beyond our doors within our communities to reach the at-risk population,” he said. “We’ve got to become more accessible and the health department needs to be looked at more than indigent care … We need a fully staffed health clinic. We need to be out there in the community focusing on this problem.

“We need to be in the rural areas — Montcalm, Matoaka, Lashmeet, Oakvale. It needs to be a unified front. Multiple health departments need to carry the same message, and not operate in silos, because we need to understand this is a public health crisis.

“It’s everything,” Puckett said “It’s economics. It’s not only problems with addiction, it’s recruitment for businesses. It’s passing drug tests. Think of what we’re doing to our families — the children that are being born addicted to a substance …  it’s every health statistic.

“West Virginia is inundated with addition and nobody wants to change,” Puckett said.

As a member of the Mercer County Board of Health, Puckett said he takes the health emergency personally.

“People want to know what services the health department provides, it comes down to a Facebook page and a website, and a phone number,” he said. “If you want to know what the health department does, that’s where you get the information.

“As a board member, I take it very personally,” he said. “We’ve got to do better.”

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