In Guilford County, opioid deaths – especially in the High Point area – have been all too common in recent years and, on Monday, March 21, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) reported that that was true across the state.

An average of nine North Carolinian residents a day died from a drug overdose in 2020, the most recent year for which full statistics are available.  That constitutes a 40 percent increase over the previous year. (Final overdose statistics for 2021 aren’t yet available.)

NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley blamed the pandemic restrictions as a major contributing factor for the large increase in overdoses in the year COVID-19 hit the state.

“A single life lost to an overdose is a life we should have saved,” Kinsley said. “Stress, loss of housing and loss of employment for those in recovery caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has led to a backslide in our fight against substance use disorders.”

Kinsley added that improving behavioral health services is a “top priority” for NCDHHS and added that the department would call upon community partners in its battle against opioids.

Opioid addiction and opioid overdose deaths have been an incredibly recalcitrant problem in Guilford County, North Carolina and the US.  Guilford County and many other states and counties are in the process of settling a massive national lawsuit against opioid makers and distributers.  The money from that lawsuit is supposed to be used to address the problem in the county – and the same goes for many other counties all over the country that participated in that suit.

In 2020, over 70 percent of overdose deaths in North Carolina are suspected to have involved “illicitly manufactured fentanyl.” According to state health officials, over 60 percent of overdose deaths involved multiple substances.  They said the mixing of opioids with stimulants –  like cocaine and methamphetamine – is increasing in the state.

According to the Monday March 18 press release from NCDHHS, “This stark increase during 2020 aligns with the increases experienced nationwide with the nation exceeding 100,000 deaths. In North Carolina, the number of drug overdose deaths — from illicit substances and/or medications — increased by nearly 1,000 deaths, from 2,352 in 2019 to 3,304 in 2020. There were also nearly 15,000 emergency department visits related to drug overdoses in 2020. Provisional surveillance data suggest these increases continued through 2021.”

State health officials also pointed out that both overdose deaths disproportionally affect “historically marginalized populations.”

They also stated that NCDHHS is working hard to reverse the trend. The department is continuing to implement the North Carolina Opioid and Substance Use Action Plan – a strategic plan that aims to prevent addiction, reduce harm from substance use and also connect people to “substance use services, housing and employment support, and to do all of this with attention to equity.”

Some of the state’s actions include:

  • Regularly providing free naloxone to syringe services programs, local government agencies, treatment providers and other community-based organizations.
  • Setting up 15 mobile health clinics in the past year meant to reach “hard-to-reach areas” to assess clients and provide treatment.
  • Funding training for health professionals working in the field on initiatives like syringe services and harm reduction programs, and prescribing medications for opioid use disorder.
  • Supporting the Hope4NC helpline (1-855-587-3463), which is available for those who need emotional support, counseling and referrals to community resources.