CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — The West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute was established to expand prevention, recovery, and outreach services for substance use disorder. Established in May of 2019, they’ve spent the last year working in West Virginia schools promoting prevention education, while partnering with local cities, like Charleston, to help expand drug treatment services.

“We had big plans to celebrate one year,” said WV DII’S president, Dr. Susan Bissett. “But then COVID hit.”

Bissett and her team stayed busy despite the pandemic, working diligently to continue their mission. They launched an addiction and recovery online resource page, and collaborated with other area organizations to increase recovery access through ‘Project Help.’

Part of their mission of reducing overdose deaths in the Mountain State is done through educating area school children about medication safety through “Rex the Rx” and the “Don’t Keep Rex Around” Campaign.

Rex is an animated pill bottle character, co-created by Bissett and Joe Murphy, CEO of Murphy Media in 2017. Since then, Rex has “visited” in real-time to students during visits to elementary classrooms across the state. To date over 4,000 pre-k students in six counties have been educated through the school-based program.

“He relates to the kids,” explained Murphy. “We have a list of their names and their birthdays and he talks personally to them, on an individual level and they can’t believe it.”

But with the uncertainty of school plans because of the coronavirus, they had to adapt. WV DII worked with Murphy Media to re engineer the program to a virtual platform reaching over 40,000 households in 13 of West Virginia’s 55 counties in Spring 2020, with plans to expand even more.

“We went back to the basics of Rex and that’s innovation,” Bissett said. ‘We took Rex back online and what happened was as a result was not only are we reaching school-age children, now we are reaching their parents and grandparents too.”

Bissett said she stressed the importance of reaching the adults now that more people are stuck at home because of COVID-19 restrictions. Among other issues, COVID-19 has brought on an increase in crisis hotline calls and overdoses nationally. Since the pandemic began, overdose numbers in Kanawha County have risen.

“I was just on a phone call today and we were talking about the increase. We’ve seen an increase in overdose calls, specifically in Kanawha County,” Bissett said.

And with children being home more as well, Bissett says its crucial parents and grandparents are being smart and careful with their medications.

The average age of prescription or illicit drug use or misuse is between 9 and 12 years old, according to WV DII. According to the national center on addiction and substance abuse, 9 out of 10 unintentional childhood poisonings occur at home.

Bissett and Murphy are both see the growth of Rex as a step in the right direction and hope to increase his visibility throughout the Mountain State in the next year.