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CHARLESTON — The U.S. Senate confirmed the nomination of former West Virginia health officer Dr. Rahul Gupta as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy on Thursday.

Gupta will be the first medical doctor to hold the position. His nomination came after President Joe Biden tapped him to lead transition efforts for the drug policy office after Biden’s election.

Most recently, Gupta served as the chief medical and health officer for the March of Dimes, a nonprofit dedicated to improving health outcomes and resources for mothers and babies.

Gupta served as West Virginia’s health officer from 2015-18. He oversaw programming to decrease tobacco use in the state and worked to analyze the effects of and contributing factors to the opioid epidemic, which hit West Virginia especially hard.

“Under Dr. Gupta’s leadership, West Virginia engaged early in the drug epidemic as so many residents were impacted by this crisis. Dr. Gupta spearheaded the creation of West Virginia’s first Office of Drug Control Policy and set forth the development of a comprehensive approach to transform West Virginia’s long-term treatment and recovery landscape,” read a statement from West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources Secretary Bill Crouch. “He understood how our state was impacted by the addiction crisis and pushed for the implementation of evidence-based prevention programs and the expansion of treatment and recovery programs. We are very proud of his accomplishments and wish him the very best with his new endeavor.”

Gupta worked as health officer and executive director of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department from 2009-14. There, he oversaw responses to crises like the Freedom Industries chemical spill in 2014 and the swine flu in 2009.

“(Gupta’s) leadership abilities are impeccable,” the Kanawha County Commission said in a statement. “He truly cares about addiction problems and will ensure that services to rural areas will be at the forefront of his platform.”

Gupta joined the health department as it was starting to implement clean-indoor-air regulations and as it developed a new system for restaurant health gradings and public posting of inspection records. Under his leadership, the health department earned national accreditation.

“I congratulate my friend and former colleague Dr. Rahul Gupta on his confirmation as the United States’ next Drug Czar. Dr. Gupta brings a wealth of knowledge to the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and I know he will bring a unique and valued perspective on the drug crisis facing this nation, especially rural America,” Dr. Sherri Young, interim health officer at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department, said in a statement. “Dr. Gupta was a strong leader at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department and the West Virginia Bureau for Public Health, and I look forward to his service in his new role.”

Many in West Virginia are looking forward to seeing the drug control office run by someone familiar with the challenges the state faces in handling and overcoming the ongoing drug epidemic.

“We congratulate Dr. Gupta on his appointment and we look forward to working with him in healing efforts for our community,” Cabell-Huntington Health Department Health Officer Dr. Michael Kilkenny said in a statement. “It’s exciting to have the director of the National Office of Drug Control Policy be someone so well known to West Virginia and Cabell County, and who has worked so closely with our health department.”

Gupta comes to the position as fatal overdoses in West Virginia and across the United States are on the rise. In the Mountain State, fatal overdoses hit a record high in 2020 — when 1,275 people died — after two consecutive years of decreases.

Experts here say they expect to see even higher numbers for 2021, as more fentanyl has entered drug supplies and as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many people out of recovery and into active addiction.

This week, the Biden administration released its latest Overdose Prevention Plan, which signifies a shift away from criminalization and law enforcement intervention strategies. Instead, the administration is looking at harm reduction and evidence-based treatment — a shift addiction experts and those who struggle with substance use disorder have advocated for.

Gupta will be at the head of this shift, but in West Virginia the efforts might be more complicated. The White House plan allocates federal funding for harm reduction programs and specifically calls for increased access to sterile syringes to curb diseases like HIV, hepatitis and endocarditis among people who use illicit drugs.

In 2018, when Gupta was state health officer, he oversaw the DHHR evaluation that led to the closure of the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s syringe service program. The evaluation found “many data quality issues” in the program and made recommendations for better operations.

While the top recommendation in the report was to suspend the program’s DHHR certification and make adjustments were the program to be reinstated, the health department’s board of directors independently voted to end the syringe program after outcries from city officials.

Kanawha County is home to “the most concerning HIV outbreak” in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Charleston, the state capital, needs-based syringe service programs have been criminalized.

At the state level, through a law passed during the last legislative session, such services are so red-taped that health agencies have been forced to shut them down, despite the need. Other, similar legislation has been implemented across the United States in recent months, including in New Jersey and Indiana, complicating efforts to increase harm reduction services.

In a statement from the White House on Thursday, Gupta seemed ready to face the challenges his new position is bound to bring.

“President Biden has made clear that addressing addiction and the overdose epidemic is an urgent priority. As Director, I will diligently work to advance high-quality, data-driven strategies to make our communities healthier and safer,” the statement read. “As a practicing physician and former health official who has served in rural communities, I have seen firsthand the heartbreaking toll of addiction and overdose in our communities, but I have also seen how we can save lives if we understand the individuals behind the statistics and meet them where they are.”

Caity Coyne covers health. She can be reached at 304-348-7939 or caity.coyne@hdmediallc.com. Follow @CaityCoyne on Twitter.

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