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CHARLESTON — Work begins in July on the first residential drug treatment program in rural Wyoming County, and should take 18 months to complete, an official working on the project said Wednesday.

During a Wednesday afternoon meeting of the Governor's Council on Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment, Deb Koester, executive director of West Virginia Local Health Inc., provided an update on a Wyoming County addiction pilot project that Gov. Jim Justice announced in February 2018. 

Koester noted, at the state Department of Health and Human Resources offices in Charleston, that Wyoming County is one of the most low-income, rural areas of the state. 

"They have no four-lane roads," she said. "They have no stoplights. They have no malls, no chain stores, no hospitals, but what they do have is 221 churches and nine pharmacies."

That's why it's so important, she said, that the community has strong existing relationships and volunteers have worked together. She said they are using a computer program called PARTNER to keep track of and encourage those networks and connections.

Koester said that Southern Highlands Community Mental Health Center is planning to begin work on the 12-bed men's program in July, and that the project should take 18 months. Kenny Birchfield, of Southern Highlands, has said the program will be located at the Magic Mart building in Rock View.

The Wyoming County Recovery Network, a nonprofit, Koester said, is also planning a long-term recovery residence. One Voice, another nonprofit, she said, is establishing a community-based recovery center, which will provide support groups, employee assistance, life skills training and other services.

Those involved also plan prevention programs for middle schools, high schools and JROTC, she said, and the area mobile harm reduction program, which offers clean syringes to stop the spread of HIV, and other services, such as HIV testing, plans to expand.

West Virginia is currently seeing an HIV outbreak spread through needle-sharing in Cabell County, and health officials aren't yet sure if it has spread to other areas. 

Koester said workers in Wyoming County are also planning to provide new linkage to mental health services, meaning transportation, she said. 

Wyoming County has the lowest number of mental health providers, compared to population, in the state, according to Koester. It has just one provider of medication-assisted treatment, she said, and 819 patients. Medication-assisted treatment programs offer medications like methadone, naltrexone and buprenorphine to treat withdrawal from opioids and prevent death by overdose. 

Jail, child protective services, and drug court, she said, are the most common ways to access treatment now. The state offers a hotline to find drug treatment options, at 1-844-HELP4WV.

"That is not meaningful in Wyoming County," she said. "They don't have cell service, so we are looking for other mechanisms to link them to that care."

Focus groups said they believed poverty was the biggest contributor to addiction there, according to Koester. 

"They say drugs are cheap and they're easy to get, and it's easier to get the drugs than the treatment," she said.  

They also identified that economic opportunity was not only part of recovery, but also part of addiction prevention in the area, she said. 

"People in Wyoming County don't want to die," she said. "They just want to stop hurting for a little while."

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Also Wednesday, council members continued work on a new three-year strategic plan to address addiction in West Virginia. A public comment period is planned for August.

Officials noted that the third residential treatment program to open thanks to the Ryan Brown Addiction Prevention and Recovery Fund, at St. Joseph's Hospital in Parkersburg, will hold an open house Thursday.

They also heard from Dr. Emma Eggleston, associate vice president for health sciences and dean of the West Virginia University School of Medicine Eastern Campus, who updated members on a separate addiction pilot project in Berkeley and Jefferson counties. They are planning community outreach teams to bring services and education directly to those affected, support for families affected by substance use disorder, and distribution and education about the opioid overdose antidote naloxone, among other initiatives.  

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