A City Wrestled Down An Addiction Crisis. Then Came COVID-19

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HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — As the COVID pandemic killed more than a half-million Americans, it also quietly inflamed what was before it the country’s greatest public health crisis: addiction.

Huntington, West Virginia skyline
Huntington, West Virginia. [AP]
The Centers for Disease Control estimates that more than 88,000 people died of drug overdoses in the 12 months ending in August 2020 — the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a year.

Huntington, West Virginia, once was ground-zero for the addiction epidemic. But after a hard-fought battle, the overdose rate plummeted.

Until the pandemic arrived and undid much of the hard work.

The devastation is an indictment of the public health infrastructure, which failed to fight the dueling crises of COVID and addiction, said Dr. Michael Kilkenny, who runs the health department in Cabell County, which includes Huntington.

Simultaneously, Kilkenny said, disruptions in health care exacerbated the collateral consequences of drug use — HIV, Hepatitis C, deadly bacterial infections that chew flesh to the bone and cause people in their 20s to have open-heart surgeries. There were 38 HIV infections tied to injection drug use last year in the county of fewer than 100,000 people — more than in 2019 in New York City.

“This was all ground we had gained. And now we’re going to have to re-take that ground,” Kilkenny said.

On the afternoon of August 15, 2016, 28 people overdosed in four hours in Huntington. By 2017, the county had an average of six overdoses a day.

They couldn’t ignore it anymore. The county got two grants and selected Larrecsa (leh-REE’-seh) Cox, a paramedic, to lead a crew of addiction specialists, faith leaders and police officers who crisscross the county, tracking down people who overdosed.

If the people they find are ready for treatment, they get them there. If they aren’t, they give them the overdose-reversal medication naloxone and other supplies to try to help them survive in the meantime.

Joshua Messer, who welcomed Cox and her team after he recently overdosed, recognizes that recovery is a gradual process.

“I’m sitting here talking to you right now,” he said.

The CDC estimates that across the country overdose deaths increased nearly 27% in the 12-month span ending in August 2020. In West Virginia, fatal overdoses increased by more than 38%.

Report after report arrived on Cox’s desk. In October, she saw a name of a woman she knew well and lost her breath: Kayla Carter.

Carter had a brilliant mind for math and loved the stars. Her family always thought she’d grow up to work for NASA.

Instead, she was addicted to opioids by the time she turned 20.

“It was hell for us,” said her mother, Lola.

Kayla Carter overdosed dozens of times. At 30 years old, she already walked with a cane that she painted her favorite color, pink. Infection coursed through her body. She had Hepatitis C and HIV.

Carter was hospitalized last summer with endocarditis, a heart infection from using dirty needles. Her parents stood at her bedside and thought she looked 100 years old. They cried all the way home.

She stayed clean when she got out of the hospital. She gained 30 pounds. She said she was sorry for all she’d missed: babies born, birthday parties, funerals. They thought they had her back.

Then she stopped answering calls. Her mother went to her apartment and found her dead on her bathroom floor.

They are still waiting for the medical examiner’s report, but her father Jeff, a retired paramedic, would rather never see it. It brings him comfort to think she died from complications from her surgeries, and not that she relapsed and overdosed.

“Why would God do that to you? Why would he give you back your kid after 12 years for, you know, a month and a half, almost two months or whatever and then take ’em away,” Lola Carter asked.

Ashley Ellis wears a locket that contains the ashes of her fiance, Brandon Williams, who died of an overdose late last year.

Now, Ellis is fighting to stay sober and be there for her two kids.

“I think losing Brandon has been, quite possibly, what’s going to save my life,” Ellis said.

Cox and her team plan to keep heading into the streets each day, fighting to save the Kayla Carters and Brandon Williamses of the world.

“You either get clean or you die. Sad reality,” Cox said.