“Dr. Gupta brings firsthand experience as a medical doctor and public health official using evidence-based strategies to address the overdose epidemic in West Virginia,” the White House said in a statement. “We hope he will be confirmed by the Senate soon.”
In a statement to The Washington Post, Gupta said: “As a physician, I have seen firsthand the heartbreaking toll of addiction and overdose in all 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 with high-quality, evidence-based care and services.”
The three-decade-old drug policy office — which was created with the support of Biden, who coined the term “drug czar” in 1982 — coordinates national policy around fighting substance-use disorders, including the response to an opioid crisis that has worsened during the pandemic. Overdose deaths rose nearly 30 percent from November 2019 to November 2020, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Police reports in Montgomery County, Maryland’s most populous county, show that fatal opioid overdoses are up 33 percent, and nonfatal overdoses are up 57 percent, this year as of the end of June, compared with the same period in 2020.
Gupta has publicly warned that the pandemic probably exacerbated addiction-related public health problems, citing the shift from in-person care. “When those services are either shut down or turned into virtual services, more people can be denied those services and that only leads to more suffering,” Gupta told Sinclair Broadcast Group in a news report broadcast this week.
“His public health expertise is really needed right now, with the highest overdose deaths this country has ever experienced,” said Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who worked with Gupta to tackle West Virginia’s opioid epidemic in 2018. “I’m hoping the administration can bring the same principles to the overdose response that they did to the covid response.”
Gupta, an ally of Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), has been favored for months to take the role of drug czar, but he faced resistance from some advocates who argued he did too little to ensure safe-needle exchange during a 2017 HIV outbreak in West Virginia.
West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) applauded the selection, saying that the state “turned a corner” in its fight against the opioid epidemic thanks to Gupta’s leadership, and March of Dimes CEO Stacey D. Stewart credited Gupta’s work to prevent substance use among pregnant women and his care for drug-dependent infants.
“I’m looking forward to Gupta’s public health approach,” said Andrew Kessler, founder of behavioral health consultancy Slingshot Solutions, citing the rise in overdose numbers and related complications like hepatitis. “People forget that before covid, this was probably the biggest public health issue in policy, and if anything, now it’s worse.”
Gupta would replace Regina LaBelle, who has served as the office’s acting director since January. While the office plays a central role in setting national drug policy strategy, it is not a Cabinet-level position, and advocates had urged Biden to reverse President Barack Obama’s decision to demote the office from his Cabinet in 2009. But two officials said that Biden was not planning to change the office’s status.
Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff and Jasmine Hilton contributed to this report.