NORTH CAROLINA (WECT) - People are dying from drug overdoses in North Carolina at a faster rate than 48 other states, according to provisional data released on Wednesday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Drug overdoses include death from opioids like heroin, fentanyl, oxycodone, and hydrocodone. But a surge in fentanyl-related deaths plays a big part in the increase.
Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues killed 1,252 people in North Carolina in 2017, much higher than 543 deaths in 2016, according to data from the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME).
"This isn't surprising, but it's sad," said Robert Childs, director of the NC Harm Reduction Coalition based in Wilmington. "We have had a massive increase in the amount of drugs that are laced with fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, so I'm not too shocked there was a rise in the data."
Deaths from drug overdoses increased 22.5 percent in 2017 compared to 2016 in North Carolina, according to the CDC data.
The only state where people are dying at a faster rate from 2016 to 2017 than NC is Nebraska, with a 33.3 percent increase.
"With fentanyl, we know people can overdose a lot faster than they would traditionally with just heroin or a prescription pain pill," said Childs.
1,974 people in NC died from opioid-related overdoses in 2017, compared with 818 deaths in 2010, according to OCME data.
The CDC has confirmed that 2,323 people died in North Carolina from drug overdoses in 2017, but the actual number is estimated to be 2,515 deaths.The latest data from OCME is that 2,547 people died from drug overdoses in 2017.
The provisional number of deaths is calculated using confirmed reports of death, then adjusting to account for delays in reporting and autopsy results.
The lag time between death and when the data are available for analysis is longer for drug overdose deaths compared with other causes of death, the CDC says. As a result, provisional estimates of drug overdose deaths are reported 6 months after the date of death.
Overall in the United States, fatal drug overdoses increased by 6.6 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Saving lives by stopping overdoses
"Wilmington needs to do a lot more," said Childs.
Law enforcement, first responders, and other agencies in Wilmington carry naoloxone to revive people experiencing an opioid overdose.
In 2017, New Hanover Regional Medical Center EMS responded to 529 opioid overdoses, according to data provided by a spokesperson.
Childs recommends expanding access to syringe exchange programs, naloxone, fentanyl test strips, and methadone and buprenorphone to help stymie overdose deaths.
"Long term, if we want to reduce overdoses and see a decrease in intoxicated drivers on the street... we are going to have to look at legalizing safer injection facilities," said Childs.
A safer injection facility allows people to use opioids like heroin in a supervised location where a caregiver can administer naloxone if the person overdoses.
Research in Canada shows these facilities can reduce deaths, ambulance calls, and HIV infections. But these facilities are currently not legal in the Unites States.
Childs said a focus on fentanyl is key to preventing future deaths. Test strips allow users to sample their drugs for fentanyl to quickly find out if their drug is tainted.
"It's getting into the heroin, it's getting into the cocaine, it's getting into methamphetamine, it's getting into street benzos," said Childs. "We've actually tested Xanax for fentanyl, and it's come out positive."
NC Harm Reduction gives out naloxone, fentanyl test strips, biohazard containers, needles, and more free to the public.