Newly released DEA data shows high opioid distribution rate in Charleston Co.

Updated: Jul. 17, 2019 at 7:29 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - A massive release of Drug Enforcement Administration data ordered by a federal judge Monday shows Charleston County had the highest average distribution rate of pain pills per person per year of any county in the United States from 2006 through 2012.

The Washington Post was the first to release an analysis of the data, which includes a map showing that between those years, Charleston County had an average of 248.3 pills distributed per person per year. The newspaper called the data, “a virtual road map to the opioid epidemic” which includes 380 million transactions between drug distributors and pharmacies during that span, according to the Post.

Experts have long suspected prescription pain pills may have sparked the nation’s opioid epidemic, and this new data illustrates the role manufacturers, distributors, and pharmacies have played in providing the fuel for this crisis.

“Seeing this drastic increase of inappropriate numbers of prescriptions being ordered and filled and given out to the community...there was a standard of accountability that was somehow missed," said Abby Foster.

She’s the program director for Wake Up Carolina, a non-profit corporation that’s been battling the opioid epidemic in Charleston County from the front lines.

“It’s another support saying this is real," Foster said. "This is in our backyard. It’s easy and human nature for us to stick our hands in the sand and say nope, not us, not me, not my neighborhood, not my kid, not my family. But unfortunately, the statistics show us it is in fact, it’s a need that needs to be addressed.”

Opioids have been blamed for thousands of deaths across the country, and they are still claiming lives in Charleston County.

In 2017, 94 people died from opioid overdoses, according the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office reports that number only slightly decreased to 90 last year.

And in just the first six months of 2019, 46 deaths have been blamed on opioids, essentially putting it on pace with previous years.

Foster says the new DEA data validates the work her organization has been doing to raise awareness, educate, and prevent more deaths.

However, she believes we haven’t seen the worst of the epidemic just yet.

“I hope it [the DEA data] helps create accountability, which I hope results in efforts to support prevention, awareness, education, recovery," Foster said. "Not only does it address the needs of those who have not yet been impacted in any way or had some sort of health emergency where they may or may not need prescription opioids, but also supports the people that are already there…the full spectrum deserves adequate treatment and support.”

More recently in 2019, Charleston County spent more than $40,000 in January, nearly $20,000 in February, and about $18,655 in March on opioid reversals, training costs, and contracted services for opioid treatments.

During a year-long time frame from March of 2018 to to February 2019, Charleston County EMS says they had 576 interventions where rescue workers administered Narcan, a life-saving drug that can reverse an overdose.

Those 576 Narcan uses were on 441 patients; 164 of the cases specifically involved heroin overdoses.

In May, South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster said there were approximately 5,000,000 opioid prescriptions issued in South Carolina in 2018.

The data, released this week by a federal court in Ohio as part of a far-reaching opioids case, shows that companies distributed 8.4 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to commercial pharmacies in 2006 and 12.6 billion in 2012. That’s an increase of over 50 percent.

Over that seven-year period, 76 billion pills were distributed in all, according to the analysis by The Post, which had sued along with another outlet, HD Media, to obtain the data. During the same timeframe, prescription opioids contributed to more than 100,000 deaths in the U.S., according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The distribution data, maintained by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency, is a key element of lawsuits filed by more than 2,000 state, local and tribal governments seeking to hold drug companies accountable for the crisis.

MORE: Watch the documentary ‘License to Pill'

Cleveland-based U.S. District Judge Dan Polster, who is overseeing most of the cases, ruled Monday that the information covering shipments from 2006 to 2012 could be made public. He said in a ruling that there is “clearly no basis” for shielding older data.

His order came a month after a federal appeals court in Cincinnati vacated Polster’s July 2018 decision that local and state governments, which had been granted access to the data, should not make it public.

A three-judge panel for the 6th U.S. Court of Appeals said Polster went too far in blocking the release of data that government attorneys argued could compromise DEA investigations. Polster asked attorneys from all sides Monday to suggest how DEA data collected for 2013 and 2014 should be protected.

“I do believe in the absence of the litigation growing to a point it’s just gotten large, this information would not have been released," Joe Rice said.

He is one of the attorneys involved in South Carolina’s fight against one of the largest opioid producers in the United States, Purdue Pharma.

“This [the DEA data] explains the beginning of the epidemic," Rice said. "Iff it can happen with this narcotic drug, it could happen with other drugs. And by coming forward and understanding how we got in this mess, how we’ve lost almost 100,000 people to opioid-related deaths is a major, major lesson for our whole future public health.”

The next highest average in a county nationwide was Leavenworth County, Kansas which averaged 226.5 pills per person. Mingo County, W.V. was third at 203.5 pills per person.

Copyright 2019 WCSC. The Associated Press contributed to this report. All rights reserved.