S.C. drug overdose deaths increased by more than 50 percent in 2020

Nationally, including South Carolina, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is largely responsible for the increase in overdose deaths.
Nationally, including South Carolina, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is largely responsible for...
Nationally, including South Carolina, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is largely responsible for the increase in overdose deaths.(DEA)
Published: Mar. 1, 2022 at 12:04 PM EST|Updated: Mar. 1, 2022 at 7:39 PM EST
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WBTV) - The number of people dying from drug overdoses in South Carolina increased by more than 50 percent in 2020, health leaders say.

The South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control (DHEC) released its annual Drug Overdose Deaths Statistical Report for South Carolina.

The data within the report shows a significant increase in drug overdose deaths for the year 2020 – the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.

From 2019 to 2020, the total number of opioid-involved overdose deaths in South Carolina increased by 59 percent, from 876 to 1,400. The total number of all drug overdoses increased by 53 percent across the state, from 1,131 to 1,734.

State health leaders say 35-to-44-year old’s are being hit the hardest by the drug crisis. It comes as a surprise because they say people think this is a disease of the young, but a counselor I talked to says it can hit anyone.

This data, which is derived from death certificates registered with DHEC’s Office of Vital Statistics, represents the deaths of individuals that occurred within the state, regardless of whether the individuals were South Carolina residents.

“It’s really tough advocating for a lot of people that a lot of society is all too willing to throw away.” Maria Bates, an executive director and substance abuse counselor at Hazel Pittman Center.

Bates has seen the faces of the opioid epidemic. She works with them every day at the Hazel Pittman Center.

”We’ve got to see those people that are struggling as our neighbors, our sons, our daughters, our husbands and wives, moms and dads and treat them with that kind of care,” says Bates.

Bates says in Chester alone, 11 people have overdosed in the last 10 days. One of the people died.

”You would think if they were overdosing then we would know them. And that tells me there are still people out there with problems that we don’t even know about it,” she says.

“While we cannot directly correlate these overdose deaths to the stress and emotional toll these individuals may have experienced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, South Carolina’s overdose death data follows national trends that substance misuse has increased since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic,” DHEC Public Health Director Dr. Brannon Traxler said. “Mental health and substance use disorders are part of public health, and DHEC is committed to working with fellow state agencies, federal partners, local law enforcement, and community groups to help prevent additional drug overdose deaths.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Drug Abuse report a provisional 15.9 percent increase in drug overdose deaths nationwide from Sept. 2020-Sept. 2021.

Bates feels those problems stemmed from the pandemic. She calls substance misuse a “disease of isolation”—a symptom of COVID when it first hit.

”It was a perfect storm. All of those individuals were at an increased risk of overdose,” she explains.

With increased risk of overdose comes increased risk of death and in the Palmetto state, 1700+ South Carolinians lost their lives.

”It just makes me so sad because those lives are people and whatever promise they held is gone,” she says.

It is the same sentiments DHEC and the Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services share especially with the skyrocketing overdose death numbers from 2020.

”There is hardly anyone that has not been impacted by the drug crisis. And as the opioid epidemic evolves, the highest priority must be keeping people alive,” she says.

Nationally, including South Carolina, the synthetic opioid fentanyl is largely responsible for the increase in overdose deaths.

From 2019 to 2020, drug overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased 105 percent in South Carolina, from 537 to 1,100. Fentanyl was involved in 79 percent of all opioid-involved overdose deaths.

“Despite the increase in overdose deaths in 2020, it is important that we recognize the tremendous work that is being done across sectors to reverse this heartbreaking trend,” S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS) Director Sara Goldsby said. “I cannot overstate the urgency of continuing our efforts to save lives, as it allows many to start on the path to treatment and recovery from opioid use disorder.”

The Just Plain Killers dashboard maintained by DAODAS is in the process of being updated to reflect the 2020 data.

The dashboard provides county-level breakdowns of drug overdose deaths and prescription drug dispersion, among other drug-related information.

Just Plain Killers is an education initiative of DAODAS and the state’s Opioid Emergency Response Team (OERT), which is a collaboration between DAODAS, DHEC, South Carolina Emergency Management Division, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, and others.

There are resources available for anyone experiencing substance use issues. For information on how to access help, treatment, or information, contact DAODAS at 803-896-5555.

Anyone experiencing substance use issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic can call a 24/7 support line at 1-844-SC-HOPES, which is operated by DAODAS and the South Carolina Department of Mental Health.

Learn more at scdhec.gov/opioidepidemic or daodas.sc.gov/prevention.

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