Many people may have thought that the opioid abuse epidemic in North Carolina and across the country had gotten as bad as it was going to get a couple of years ago.

However, the epidemic is still raging and, on Tuesday, Feb. 21. the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) described new efforts to battle the epidemic and reduce the number of overdose deaths in the state.

In 2021, there were nearly 17,000 emergency department visits related to drug overdoses in North Carolina and 4,041 people lost their lives to overdose. That was the highest number of overdose deaths in a single year on record in the state until 2022, when the number hit 4,243.

According to state health officials, the rise in overdose deaths in recent years is driven largely by illegally manufactured fentanyl. In 2021, more than 77 percent of overdose deaths in the state are thought to involve fentanyl – often in combination with other substances.

Giving the alarming rate at which overdose deaths continue, NCDHHS is increasing its efforts.

“In response, NCDHHS is expanding access to treatment and prevention. Our efforts include the distribution of more than 719,000 units of naloxone to agencies across the state to assist in overdose response efforts,” the February 21 press release states. “Additionally, the department is working to increase access to medication assisted treatment by changing regulations so mobile medication units can provide methadone and other FDA-approved medications for the treatment of opioid use disorders in North Carolina. The department will also be working with EMS agencies in eight counties to allow them to offer buprenorphine as a medication to treat people who have an opioid use disorder.”

According to state health officials, getting people help before they hit a crisis point is vitally important. NCDHHS has therefore expanded its mobile crisis services and increased peer supports and collegiate recovery programs in order to get people the care they need as early as possible.

The department has also launched the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline that offers 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors.  Since the launch of that easy-to-remember number last summer, the NC Suicide and Crisis Lifeline has seen an 85 percent increase in callers identifying substance use as their primary reason for calling.

NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley said that his the department is using all the tools at its disposal.

“North Carolina’s communities and families are meeting the tragedy of overdose deaths and the opioid crisis head on, every day,” Kinsley said.  “With the right treatment and support, recovery is possible, and individuals can go on to live full and productive lives. Our goal is to break the costly cycle of addiction and the smartest investment we can make to do that is expanding Medicaid.”

Since launching this plan of attack, the number of people receiving prescribed opioids has decreased by at least 36 percent and the number of people who don’t have insurance or have Medicaid receiving opioid use disorder treatment has increased by 48 percent.

Progress in the opioid battle is monitored on a data dashboard that tracks a variety of state, regional and county-level metrics.