Health officials warn fake ‘blue pills’ are causing hundreds of overdoses in SC

Published: Jul. 16, 2021 at 2:29 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 16, 2021 at 4:37 PM EDT
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CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCSC) - South Carolina’s Opioid Emergency Response Team has issued a warning about a new counterfeit pain pill blamed for hundreds of opioid overdoses across the state.

The OERT advisory said the fake, 30mg Roxicodone, also known as “blue pills,” are laced with fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

Since January 2020, more than 500 suspected opioid overdoses statewide have involved “blue pills,” according to the OERT alert.

“It’s something that might be perceived to be a safe, prescription drug, that could be misused perhaps. When really, it’s an illicitly made manufactured, potent drug that is deadly,” Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services Director Sara Goldsby said. “That’s where we’ve been identifying it is in individuals who have experienced overdose related to these blue pills.”

Approximately two thirds of all incidents happened in Upstate counties, however the OERT warning showed the potentially lethal pills have also been connected to at least a dozen cases in the Lowcountry.

“A higher percentage of these overdoses involve individuals ages 20-29 than is typically seen for EMS overdose response. Individuals often report overdosing even after taking only half a pill,” the advisory stated. “Many individuals were given the pills by family members or friends and did not know that they contained highly potent fentanyl.”

The alert was issued as the state’s Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services is battling a resurgence of opioid overdoses and deaths amid the coronavirus pandemic.

June 2021 brought record numbers for Charleston County.

According to the Lowcountry’s DAODAS facility, otherwise known as the Charleston Center, 141 overdoses and 11 deaths were reported in Charleston County last month. Officials with the center said those overdose numbers were double the numbers recorded in June 2020, which were a record 12-month high for overdoses.

“A lot has changed in the opioid epidemic in the last few years, and in particular it’s really about the potency of the substances available and being used. We are seeing a transition of folks who use to perhaps misuse prescribed drugs, they’ve begun using heroin. And now what is available on the illicit market is extremely potent and deadly fentanyl,” Goldsby said. “It’s in all sorts of substances, even when folks may not be intending to use an opioid substance, they are in fact ingesting these very dangerous fentanyl and opioid analogs.”

Nationwide, overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. The government estimate released Wednesday eclipsed the 72,000 drug overdose deaths in 2019 and amounts to a 29% increase. Experts say lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made treatment harder to get.

“The unfortunate consequence of isolation that we experienced last year to keep ourselves safe from COVID really worsened the problem that we have with alcohol and drugs in the nation. So, we have yet to see all of the consequences of that, but what we are seeing right now is elevated incidence of overdose,” Goldsby said.

South Carolina had started to see opioid overdose deaths level off in 2019, an encouraging sign that was disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic.

“We had come a long way with a lot of work on policy and programs and to have a setback like this with COVID-19 is very frustrating, very discouraging, very disheartening,” Goldsby said. “But it just underscores for us how important this work is and that we have to work extra hard now to make sure we’re helping people, saving lives, and turning this thing around.”

Meanwhile, SCDAODAS just launched its “Embrace Recovery” campaign to show that recovery is possible and bring awareness to the people who are in recovery.

“In some ways things are getting worse, but also we have more and more people achieving a life of full recovery every day. We estimated there are more than 370,000 South Carolinians living a life in recovery. We have to recognize how many folks have come out of addiction successfully and celebrate that,” Goldsby said.

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