“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche

It’s now halfway through 2021 and unfortunately, the opioid epidemic has raged on. The epidemic is worsening and expanding, often involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl that are far more deadly in much smaller amounts compared to traditional opioids such as heroin and morphine. Opioid misuse has continued to grow both locally in South Carolina and nationally across the United States. Here is your update on the opioid epidemic and the latest stats.

The Cost of the Opioid Epidemic

In 2019, the most recent year there is complete information for, nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid-involved drug overdoses. These deaths included heroin, prescription painkillers and fentanyl, often mixed with other drugs such as psychostimulants like methamphetamine. In addition, there has been a rise in the number of those overdose deaths attributed to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl and carfentanyl. So what is the cost? Financially, the opioid epidemic is costing the U.S. $78.5 billion every year according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). This includes the costs of healthcare, addiction treatment, lost work productivity and criminal justice needs. This does not include the intangible costs of lost loved ones, orphaned children, children entering the foster care system and related costs to the loss of a competent parent. This cost does not include the burial costs and funeral costs families are left to bear when a loved one dies from an opioid-related overdose.

COVID and Opioids

COVID has not slowed down the opioid epidemic. In fact, preliminary data shows that both fatal and non-fatal overdoses have risen since the beginning of the COVID response here in the U.S. in March 2020. From March 2020 to September 2020, there was an increase of suspected fatal and non-fatal overdoses involving opioids. July 2020 marked the peak of these overdoses of which numbers were higher than other months during the period or at any time during 2019. During this period, opioid-related non-fatal overdose emergency room visits trended higher than at any point during 2019.

The 12 months ending November 2020 saw a 28.9% increase in overdose deaths. Only one state had a decline in general drug overdose deaths – South Dakota. Every other state, including South Carolina, saw increased numbers of drug overdose deaths. South Carolina saw a preliminary 47% increase in overdose deaths reported so far. Note that this number could increase as there are a number of still pending or open investigations due to COVID-related backlogs in processing and closing death cases. Of the opioid-related overdose deaths, 72.9% of them involved a synthetic opioid such as fentanyl or carfentanyl. The number of deaths involving opioids combined with psychostimulants (methamphetamine) also continues to increase.

What can be done? Public education programs by the CDC and National Institutes of Health among others are trying to tackle the problem. Also new guidelines have been implemented for doctors regarding the prescribing of opioid prescription medications with many states implementing tracking systems that prevent drug seekers from “doctor shopping” to obtain multiple prescriptions. There has been an increase of prescription drop off sites where people can safely dispose of old or no longer needed prescriptions. Admittedly, we still have a long way to go in this battle against opioid misuse and abuse.