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NC sees 22 percent increase in overdose deaths, highest ever recorded

20230226_Schulz_City-ncdhhs-overdose-deaths-increase-32.jpg
DTH Photo Illustration. North Carolina experienced a 22 percent increase in overdose deaths in 2021.

Content warning: This article contains mention of drug overdose.

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North Carolina saw a 22 percent increase in overdose deaths in 2021, according to a Feb. 21 press release from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

The NCDHHS recorded that 4,041 people died from an overdose, the highest-ever number of state overdose deaths in a single year.

Dr. Susan Kansagra, the director of the N.C. Division of Public Health and the NCDHHS' assistant secretary for public health, said there are multiple reasons that overdose deaths are increasing in the state and nationwide.

“Early on, we were seeing an increase in overprescribing of opioids by providers, and then we were seeing the influx of powerful opioids coming in like fentanyl, for example,” Kansagra said. “But we also know that there is an increase in need for behavioral health and treatment resources in our state as well.”

According to the NCDHHS, over 77 percent of North Carolina overdose deaths in 2021 were likely related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can cause high respiratory distress when taken with other substances.

North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein announced in a Feb. 20 press release that he is seeking funding to create a Fentanyl Control Unit within the N.C. Department of Justice to help local district attorneys handle large-scale fentanyl trafficking and cases of overdose.

“Fentanyl is deadly and highly addictive,” Stein said in the press release. “Even as we interdict more fentanyl at the border than ever before, too many North Carolinians overdose from fentanyl and are dying.”

Kansagra said the NCDHHS is working on multiple initiatives including recovery support and opioid harm reduction programs for the community and for college campuses. She said the department is also expanding its mobile crisis units and working on the distribution of naloxone. 

Naloxone, also known by its brand name, Narcan, is a life-saving medication that can reverse an overdose if administered in enough time.

Reid Getty, an outreach worker and field phlebotomist for the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, works primarily in Wake and Durham counties to educate people on overdose prevention.

“We work directly with people who use drugs, who are friends and family members of people who use drugs and get the training and the actual overdose reversal medicine in their hands as well as train a bunch of other community partners,” they said.

Getty said both people struggling with substance use and those close to people who struggle can reach out to the harm reduction coalition for a variety of resources and services. They said the coalition offers fentanyl test trips and training on naloxone administration.

Megan Pickard is the Lantern Project recovery diversion coordinator in the Orange County Criminal Justice Resource Department. The Lantern Project is a deflection, diversion and reentry program within the resource department. 

In addition to those who independently seek help from the project, Pickard said local police departments and attorneys within Orange County refer people suffering from substance abuse to the Lantern Project. She then connects them with treatment programs. Depending on the agreement between her and law enforcement, she said some people's charges can be dismissed or lowered.

The Lantern Project is partnered with Freedom House Recovery Center in Chapel Hill. Pickard said after her initial intake of a referred person, she often connects them with the center to best tailor care to that person’s specific needs.

She also said the Orange County Detention Center and the health department have vending machines of naloxone for free

“Even if you don't know someone who uses opioids, I still think it's always a good idea to have Narcan on hand because you never know,” Pickard said.

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Kansagra said naloxone is available at most drug stores and pharmacies in the state. The website naloxonesaves.org has information about where naloxone is distributed or available for purchase.

@audreykashatus7

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com