After a hard-fought battle, the overdose rate in Huntington, West Virginia, plummeted – until the coronavirus pandemic arrived and undid much of the local response team's work. (April 8)
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: The COVID pandemic has hit opioid user Joshua Messer hard.
JOSHUA MESSER: How y'all doing today?
The paramedics were all around me. And I was blue. And they said I was dead! Or I ODed.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: After a long battle against the opioid crisis, Huntington, West Virginia became a national model for how a city should respond.
DISPATCHER: 28-year-old male overdose.
LARRECSA COX: Regardless of COVID, people are still out there overdosing. Like, the world is still going.
All right I'll follow you.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: With overdoses surging amid pandemic shutdowns, those on the front lines feared their hard work was being undone. So they hit the streets again.
Led by paramedic Larrecsa Cox, a unit of specialists, pastors, and police visit those who overdose to offer help, something that is tougher to do in the COVID age.
JOSHUA MESSER: A lot of people started using drugs more, because they're trapped in their house. There's really nothing to do.
LARRECSA COX: At least one month in some kind of program--
I mean that just really put a ringer in everything. Especially with trying to connect with people that did, in fact, overdose.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: West Virginia saw a 38% increase in overdose deaths in the latest 12-month span. The state's experience reflects a nationwide increase. The CDC analysis counted 88,000 overdoses, the highest number ever recorded.
DR. MICHAEL KILKENNY: This was all ground we had gained. We're going to have to retake that ground.
LOLA CARTER: It was hell for us.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: Lola Carter's daughter Kayla died in the fall after battling addiction for over a decade. Making it even more frustrating for the Carters, was that Kayla appeared to have been turning the corner.
LOLA CARTER: 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 them away?
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: Ashley Ellis wears a locket that contains the ashes of her fiance, who died of an overdose late last year.
ASHLEY ELLIS: I think losing Brandon has been quite possibly what's going to save my life.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: Now Ellis is fighting to stay sober, and be there for her two kids.
The pandemic changed and worsened what before it was the greatest public health challenge facing the country.
LARRECSA COX: Either you get clean or you die. Sad reality.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: A reality with which Cox and her team will continue to deal every day, pandemic or not.
JOSHUA MESSER: I'm sitting here talking to you right now. So I'm here, I made it.
MIKE HOUSEHOLDER: Mike Householder, the Associated Press. Huntington, West Virginia.