Health experts, recovery organizations fear ‘frightening’ rise in S.C. opioid overdoses

Updated: Jul. 30, 2020 at 7:04 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - State health leaders and recovery organizations say the coronavirus pandemic is increasing drug overdoses at a “frightening” rate.

Isolation is believed to be the cause as addicts are missing the connections, relationships, and resources they depend on to get clean and stay sober.

The South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services reported a staggering rise in suspected opioid overdoses since the pandemic began.

In June, emergency crews responded to 900 suspected opioid overdoses, nearly double the amount they responded to during the same month last year.

Officials are also concerned about how these overdose cases numbers translate to overdose deaths, but the total picture isn’t clear yet.

County coroner’s offices do not have complete overdose death counts for May, June, and July because toxicology results can take 8 to 12 weeks to be returned from SLED. Sara Tuuk, the deputy case manager for the Charleston County Coroner’s Office, said those results have also been delayed because of COVID.

However, Sara Goldsby, the director of DAODAS, said they know more lives are being lost to overdoses than in past years because those deaths historically run at about 10 percent of the total number of suspected opioid overdose cases.

“We are feeling very disturbed by what we are seeing now,” Goldsby said. “This is less herion use. About 30% of overdose reversals indicate the person had been using heroin. Most of the other reports are related to prescription pills or illicit counterfeit looking prescription pills. Things that look like Xanax and Roxicodone.”

May was the highest month on record for overdose incidents in South Carolina, higher than experts have ever seen before with 930 suspected opioid overdoses. And while officials are hoping the trend doesn’t continue, the numbers don’t appear promising.

“We had 179 responses to overdose just last week,” Goldsby said.

Lowcountry recovery organizations are feeling the pressure, too.

Wakeup Carolina officials have reported that requests for their services have tripled since March.

“We knew that we have been busy like we haven’t seen before,” a Facebook post from the recovery organization said. “Our community has seen many local overdoses...people in our community and families are getting hit hard with loss!”

Chad Logan, the director of The Hope Project, said his organization has seen a similar increase and he’s concerned this increase in overdoses will continue.

“I really believe the farther we get into this quarantine, pandemic, the worse off people are getting. This is just uncharted territory and we don’t have any template to follow as far as what to do in this situation,” Logan said. “It’s scary times, and if this thing continues on, I believe the overdose numbers are going to rise.”

Logan is encouraging the public to get educated on the signs of addiction and drug abuse, and he is urging the importance of learning how to administer Narcan, a medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

The Hope Project and Wakeup Carolina offer free Narcan training sessions for anyone and distribute Narcan for those in the community to keep on-hand in case of an emergency. Anyone can attend, but the pandemic has pushed these events online.

COVID-19 has also sidelined many of the meetings and other resources drug users depend on for sobriety. The Hope Project has been utilizing Zoom to rebuild a sense of community for those struggling with addiction, but they have struggled to make and maintain connections as they did before the pandemic.

“A lot of people aren’t joining the Zoom calls because they don’t want to look at a camera and talk to a camera. A lot of people aren’t doing the things that a lot of people are doing to help keep community,” Logan said. “A lot of people need that in-person hug that in-person communication and encouragement, so I think the number 1 thing is community.”

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