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Fact-check: Did Opioid Overdose Deaths in West Virginia Fall by 8.5%?

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This Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2017 photo shows an arrangement of pills of the opioid oxycodone-acetaminophen in New York. Bills seeking to tax opioids have been introduced in Alaska, California, Delaware, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Montana, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and West Virginia. Nearly all of them have been introduced since 2017. Photo: AP Photo/Patrick Sison

Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., offered a note of optimism about her state’s struggle with opioid addiction in a Jan. 22 tweet.

Capito tweeted, “Thanks to successful federal, state, and local efforts, preliminary statistics show opioid overdose deaths are down 8.5% in West Virginia. Awesome news!”

Thanks to successful federal, state, and local efforts, preliminary statistics show opioid overdose deaths are down 8.5% in West Virginia. Awesome news! https://t.co/uICcVlU7vZ— Shelley Moore Capito (@SenCapito) January 22, 2019

Is this statistic correct? Capito’s office did not respond to several inquiries, but we were able to find data that addresses the question.

Her tweet links to a USA Today article about newly released data on opioids published the same day as the tweet. Accompanying that article is a link to a related article that summarizes the state-by-state data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the breakdown, West Virginia’s predicted 12-month number for overdose deaths from all drugs fell from 1,047 in 2017 to 958 in 2018. That’s a decrease of 8.5 percent, as Capito said.

However, we should note a couple caveats.

First, a different cut of the CDC data actually shows even stronger declines in West Virginia. Preliminary, 12-month statewide data for overdose deaths shows an 18.7 percent decline for reported deaths between July 2017 and July 2018, and a 32 percent decline for predicted deaths over the same period.

Second, the 8.5 percent decline refers to overdose deaths from all drugs, not “opioid overdose deaths,” as Capito said.

The report doesn’t break down the data for opioid deaths by state. However, other data shows patterns for different drugs, and those serve to complicate Capito’s optimism.

A CDC report detailing annual figures for 2016 and 2017 found that in West Virginia, there was a decrease in prescription opioid overdose deaths by almost 13 percent between those two years. However, during the same time period, the deaths from all opioids, including heroin and methadone, rose more than 14 percent, and the death rates from synthetic opioids other than methadone increased by more than 42 percent.

In other words, a reduction in the deaths from prescription opioids masked how fast deaths from all opioids and synthetic opioids rose over that period.

“The opioid overdose epidemic continues to worsen and evolve because of the continuing increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids,” the CDC reported, according to a Dec. 28, 2018 article in the Register Herald of Beckley, W.Va.Our ruling

Capito tweeted, “Thanks to successful federal, state, and local efforts, preliminary statistics show opioid overdose deaths are down 8.5% in West Virginia.”

This number appears in a USA Today article that summarized CDC data, and other CDC data shows even sharper declines. That’s the good news.

However, Capito misidentified the figure as opioid overdose deaths specifically, rather than overdose deaths from all drugs. In addition, a more detailed analysis shows that while prescription opioid overdose deaths are down, overdose deaths from synthetic opioids are up. This suggests a more complicated outlook for the state’s overall overdose problem.

We rate the statement Half True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

Fact Check

Fact-check: Is Jim Justice Right About a Record Surplus in 2019?

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Gov. Jim Justice, R. W.Va., delivers his annual State of the State speech on Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2019, in Charleston, W.Va. Photo: AP Photo/Tyler Evert

Shortly before the start of the 2019 legislative session, West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice touted the state’s improved budget position for the 2019 fiscal year.

In a tweet sent on Jan. 8, Justice wrote, “Another month of record-breaking revenue numbers! For December, we had a $44.8 million surplus. Year-to-date we are $185.9 million above estimates. This is the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history!”

Is that correct? Justice’s office didn’t respond to inquiries, but we were able to find supporting evidence.

The tweet linked to a press release from the that detailed the list of revenues and expenses from the general revenue fund, and data from West Virginia State Budget Office supported the information in the press release.

The general revenue fund for December — the most recent completed period at the time of Justice’s tweet — had a $44.8 million dollar surplus, with collections totaling $185.9 million more than had been estimated. That’s in line with Justice’s tweet.

But is this actually the largest first-six-month surplus of any fiscal year in state history?

Numbers from WV Checkbook and the West Virginia State Budget Office, with information dating back to 1999, confirm that through the first six months of the 2019 fiscal year, West Virginia did indeed have the largest cumulative surplus since 1999.

The previous post-1999 high occurred in 2011,  when the budget surplus hit $159.9 million more than estimated.

According to the governor’s office, the rise in collections can be attributed to an increased rate of growth in a number of taxes including severance tax, corporation net income tax, consumer sales tax and personal income tax.

It’s worth noting that every year, West Virginia’s economy grows bigger, so comparing budget figures across time, as Justice did, is tricky. The state’s gross domestic product, when adjusted for inflation, was 14 percent bigger in 2017 than it was in 1999.Our Ruling

Justice said for fiscal year 2019, West Virginia had “the largest cumulative surplus for the first six months of any fiscal year in state history.”

We checked the historical data and found that he’s correct going back to 1999. However, that’s not the entire history of the state. We couldn’t confirm any data prior to 1999, so it’s conceivable that there was a larger surplus prior to that year.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Would One Fentanyl Seizure Be Able to Kill Every West Virginian 32 Times Over?

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In its purest form, two to three milligrams of fentanyl can be fatal. Courtesy: New Hampshire State Police Forensic Lab

When President Donald Trump announced that he would go around Congress to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border by declaring a national emergency, U.S. Rep. Carol Miller, R-W.Va., tweeted a video supporting the idea.

In the Feb. 15 video, Miller said, “West Virginia has been hit especially hard by illegal drugs smuggled across our southern border. Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

There’s no question that West Virginia has been hit hard by the opioid crisis — PolitiFact West Virginia has previously reported that the state ranked No. 1 in the nation for opioid overdoses per capita.

But what about the idea that a single federal seizure of fentanyl could have killed every West Virginian 32 times over? We took a closer look.

Miller’s office told us that they were referring to late January seizure of 254 pounds of fentanyl by Customs and Border Protection at the Nogales port of entry in Arizona. The drugs — which were “concealed within a special floor compartment of a trailer that was laden with cucumbers,” according to the the agency — represented the largest fentanyl seizure in the agency’s history.

Miller’s office also walked us through the math they used to arrive at their figure.

The seizure of 254 pounds converts to 115.2 kilograms. In turn, 115.212 kilograms equals 115.212 million milligrams.

Miller’s office said it used 2 milligrams as a lethal dose of fentanyl, citing information from the Drug Enforcement Administration that 2 milligrams is “a lethal dose for most people.”

Meanwhile, 115.212 million milligrams works out to 57.606 million lethal doses of 2 milligrams each.

West Virginia’s population in 2018 was 1,805,832. If you divide 57.606 millon lethal doses by 1,836,843, it means that amount of fentanyl could theoretically kill every West Virginian 31.8 times over. Rounded up, that works out to the 32 times that Miller cited.

To make sure the 2 milligram threshold was sound, we checked with Timothy J. Pifer, the director of the New Hampshire State Police Forensic Laboratory, an expert on fentanyl and its lethality.

“Based upon research, toxicology reports and information from other agencies, two to three milligrams of fentanyl in its purest form could be fatal,” Pifer said.

However, he added that the technical details make a difference.

For one thing, if you use the 3 milligram threshold instead, the Nogales seizure would be enough to kill every West Virginian about 21 times over, not 32. There would also be a difference in lethality depending on the age, body size, and health of the individual in question.

In addition, Pifer added that “is not clear whether or not the 254 pounds is pure fentanyl or fentanyl that has been already diluted for sale or distribution on the street.” The average degree of purity would make a difference in its lethality.

One final point: Miller used the statistic to support the case for constructing a wall at the U.S.-Mexico border. However, the fentanyl was seized at a port of entry. A wall wouldn’t prevent that type of smuggling through established checkpoints.  

Our ruling

Miller said, “Just two weeks ago, Customs and Border Protection seized enough fentanyl to kill every person in West Virginia 32 times over.”

If you consider 2 milligrams to be a lethal dose — which the Drug Enforcement Administration does — then Miller’s estimate is very close to correct. The only caveat is that differences in purity and the health and size of the potential victim can make a difference.

That said, there’s no question that the fentanyl from the seizure, spread evenly and effectively through the population, could have killed every West Virginia resident many times over.

We rate the statement Mostly True.

This article was originally published by PolitiFact.

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Fact Check

Fact-check: Does West Virginia Have the Nation’s Lowest Workforce Participation Rate?

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Gee delivers his 2017 State of the University address. Photo: Courtesy West Virginia University

Is workforce participation lower in West Virginia than in any state? That’s what West Virginia University president Gordon Gee wrote in a recent op-ed.

Gee’s Jan. 14 column in the State Journal newspaper was titled, “An effective education system is key to West Virginia’s future.”

In the column, Gee wrote, “As I often point out, our state does not have a job problem. It has a skills problem that leaves many high-paying jobs unfilled. We have the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent, when the national average is about 63 percent.”

Is this claim accurate? We took a closer look.What is West Virginia’s workforce participation rate?

Economists say the most appropriate statistic in this case is the civilian labor force participation rate, which is calculated on a regular basis by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The statistic takes the number of people who are employed, adds it to the number of unemployed people who are looking for work, and divides the sum by the total population that is at least 16 years of age, not serving on active duty in the military, and not institutionalized in a facility such as a prison or a long-term-care home.

The most recent data available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from December 2018, showed that West Virginia had a civilian labor force participation rate of 53.9 percent. The figure didn’t deviate much throughout 2018, ranging from 53.7 percent to 54 percent depending on the month.

The past five years also looked similar to 2018. The average workforce participation rate in 2018 was 53.9 percent. In 2017 it was 53.3 percent, in 2016 it was 53.1 percent, in 2015 it was 52.8 percent, and in 2014 it was 53.1 percent.

He would have been a little closer using a similar, but distinct, statistic known as the employment-population ratio. This statistic takes the number of employed people and divides it by the same overall population used in the civilian labor force participation rate. In West Virginia, that was 51.2 percent in December 2018, and was close to that during 2018.

So for this part of his statement, Gee was close, and he did say “around 50 percent,” which gives him some wiggle room.Is West Virginia’s rate the lowest in the nation?

West Virginia did indeed have the lowest civilian labor force participation rate in the nation in December 2018. The next-closest state was Mississippi, with 55.8 percent. And the pattern was much the same for the rest of 2018.

In fact, West Virginia has “remained in the lowest spot since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began reporting the series on a consistent basis in 1976,” said Brian Lego, research assistant professor at West Virginia University’s Bureau of Business and Economic Research.Is the national average about 63 percent?

The national civilian labor force participation rate was 63.1 percent in December 2018, after rising from a low of 62.7 percent earlier in the year.

So Gee is on target with his statement that the national rate was “about 63 percent.”Why does West Virginia fare so poorly in these measurements?

Lego said there are a range of factors that explain the state’s weak performance.

“The big picture reasons are related to human capital deficiencies such as lack of skills needed for jobs available,” he said. He also cited poor health, drug abuse, and a large number of elderly residents in West Virginia.Our ruling

Gee said, “We have the nation’s lowest workforce participation rate, which hovers around 50 percent, when the national average is about 63 percent.”

He was very close on all three elements of the statement, and he gave himself some breathing room by using the words “around” and “about.” We rate his statement True.

This story was originally published by PolitiFact in partnership with the West Virginia University Reed College of Media.

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