South Carolina officials say the number of deaths caused by opioid overdoses has increased in the state for the third year in a row.
During a Monday meeting of the state’s Opioid Emergency Response Team (OERT), officials announced 748 deaths from opioid-related overdoses last year. That was a significant increase from 616 deaths in 2016 and 508 deaths in 2014.
The total number of prescription drug-involved overdose deaths, which include non-opioid drugs, increased by 37%, from 572 deaths in 2014 to 782 in 2017. The increase was driven by heroin-involved overdose deaths, which nearly tripled in the same span. Overall, fentanyl-involved overdose deaths saw a more than four-time increase from 68 to 362 deaths in 2017.
Department of Drugs, Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services director Sara Goldsby said the number of fentanyl-caused overdoses drove the increase. But she also noted it may partially be due to better reporting by counties.
“It may actually be showing us some deaths related to drugs that we weren’t identifying previously,” she told South Carolina Radio Network. “In addition to that, we’ve seen some very potent, illicit opioids entering the state.”
There were some positives, however. Horry County, which has long been seen as the center of the state’s crisis, bucked the state trend and reported a decrease in 2017 (from 101 deaths in 2016 to 77 last year). The response team credited the county’s prevention efforts and its increased use of Narcan and other overdose reversal medication.
Deaths due to methadone also continue to decrease from 79 in 2014 to 45 in 2017, which is consistent with national trends..
“The opioid crisis cannot be solved by any single organization. It takes partners with different areas of expertise working together,” Department of Health and Environmental Control public health director Lilian Peake said.
The state’s three-biggest major metropolitan areas (Charleston, Greenville and Columbia) all saw considerable increases in opioid-involved deaths over last year.
However, Goldsby noted each death still leaves a lasting toll. “When you look at numbers and data, we’re talking about lives,” she said. “We’re talking about families impacted. So we need to be thinking every time we see a number or talk about data, we’re talking about real human beings.”