Gupta returns to West Virginia with focus on overdose response efforts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy understands the campaigns in West Virginia addressing drug addiction and overdoses.

Dr. Rahul Gupta presided over the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department for five years before becoming the state’s chief health officer in January 2015. He oversaw multiple initiatives addressing addiction during his three years in the statewide position, in which he focused on utilizing data and identifying risks in formulating response strategies.

Gupta, who became the White House drug czar last November, is in West Virginia this week to meet with local, state and federal officials about the matter and response plans. His first event was a Q&A at the University of Charleston to discuss his role and the perspective from his position in the Biden administration.

“It’s really critical for me to be able to make sure we are doing everything we can right here in the Mountain State because for so long, so many West Virginians have suffered from substance use disorder,” Gupta told MetroNews on Tuesday.

“I think our state can serve as a model example for the nation in how to get things done right, how to save lives, and we just have the perfect recipe here of individuals who look at each other as neighbors, friends, family. Every time this tragedy happens, it’s one of us that gets lost. We understand that.”

Dr. Rahul Gupta (File)

West Virginia leads the nation in drug overdose deaths; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the state had 81.4 deaths related to overdoses per 100,000 people in 2020. Kentucky had the second highest rate: 49.2 deaths per 100,000 people. The national average is 28.3 deaths per 100,000 people.

“One of the first things that is important to recognize is this is a crisis that doesn’t care about people’s politics or whether they’re rich or poor, or Black or white, urban or rural. That’s why it is such an important critical issue,” Gupta said. “President Biden has really made it a part of his unity agenda, with the sense of a top priority and an urgent priority.”

The White House released its National Drug Control Strategy in April. The Biden administration has called for expanding access to intervention services and treatment, as well as improving collaboration with law enforcement to better address drug trafficking.

Gupta said a leading problem in treating addiction is the lack of service options. He noted the negative stigma surrounding treatment hinders growth.

“We just don’t have it, and we need to build it,” he said.

“I think one of the first things we do is we meet people where they are, provide them the help, support, and build that trust and engagement. It really begins with understanding why we do not have treatment infrastructure.”

Gupta mentioned increasing access to telehealth and the availability of drugs like naloxone — which can reverse an opioid overdose — as essential steps in reducing overdoses and deaths. He stressed a demand for workers for services related to addiction and mental health.

State governments have access to more than $3 billion through the American Rescue Plan Act for these programs.

“Where you live and your ZIP code should not define whether you get to live or die when you’re going through an overdose,” he added.

Gupta said West Virginia communities have been successful with quick response teams; local bodies establish such groups that are responsible for administering care during situations involving drug misuse and contacting individuals with opportunities for treatment. Gupta will spend part of his visit taking part in a ride-along with such a unit.

“I think it’s important that no matter who you are or where you are, you have the ability to access treatment. We want to make sure anyone who goes through an overdose has the ability to get treatment,” he said. “To me, an overdose is a cry for help. I believe we need to make sure it’s treated like one.”

While Gupta is familiar with West Virginia, he believes there are new approaches and ideas he can learn and propose when he returns to the nation’s capital.

“It’s very critical for me to be able to understand, importantly, what’s working, but even more importantly, what’s not working so we can stop doing that and do more with what’s working in order to bring true solutions that impact people on the ground in a real way,” he said.

U.S. Sens. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., joined Senate colleagues on a letter to Gupta this week requesting more counties receive designation as High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas. The senators contend there are deficiencies in selecting counties, noting the number of counties in the Appalachia region that do not meet all related criteria.

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