Ten months ago, this news outlet published a report warning readers about the worsening scourge of opioid overdoses in South Carolina. It looks like things have gotten significantly worse since then, although updated data won’t be available for another two months.
In the meantime, officials at the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control (SCDHEC) told me this week that “suspected opioid overdoses reported by (emergency medical services) were around 40-50 percent higher in South Carolina in 2020 than in 2019.”
That would obviously represent a massive increase in opioid-related overdoses – one which (anecdotally, anyway) appears to have carried over into 2021.
In 2019, a total of 1,131 South Carolinians died as a result of overdosing on drugs – up modestly (2.53 percent) from the previous year’s total of 1,103 overdose deaths, per data (.pdf) from SCDHEC. And while these numbers included all drug overdoses, prescription drug deaths in 2019 climbed from 863 to 923 (a 6.95 percent increase) and deaths involving opioids climbed from 816 to 876 (a 7.35 percent increase).
Meanwhile, deaths involving fentanyl – an extremely powerful synthetic opioid – surged from 460 to 537 (a 16.7 percent increase). Since 2014, fetanyl-related deaths in South Carolina have risen by a staggering 689.7 percent – and those are just the deaths we know about.
Updated numbers will be released in September, SCDHEC sources told me.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), fentanyl – a schedule II prescription drug – is up to 100 times more potent than morphine. Prescribed for patients who are dealing with severe pain (or patients who are dying), the drug is manufactured commercially and on the black market.
In fact, black market drug dealers are increasingly combining illicitly manufactured fentanyl with heroin, cocaine, ecstasy (MDMA), methamphetamines – even marijuana – in the hopes of stretching out their supplies. This is similar to a process known as “cutting” – in which drugs like cocaine are mixed with other substances (including laundry detergent, baking soda, procaine or lidocaine).
Because fentanyl is so cheap to manufacture, “cutting” it with other drugs boosts a dealer’s profits without sacrificing potency. In fact, fentanyl actually makes these amalgamations far more potent. The downside? Danger. Adding fentanyl to a drug cocktail subjects recreational users to a substantially elevated risk of overdose.
Which is what we are seeing in South Carolina … and across the country.
If every drug on the market is potentially linked to fentanyl … then no drug is safe. And while I disagree with S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) chief Mark Keel when it comes to the issue of legalizing drugs – he opposes legalization, I support it – the rash of fentanyl-related overdoses underscores one of the primary concerns he has been raising for years about the dangers of an unregulated drug marketplace.
It also makes it difficult for coroners and medical examiners to determine precisely which substance (or combination of substances) is killing users and addicts.
The opioid epidemic in South Carolina appears to be especially pronounced in the Greenville area. According to reporter Taggart Houck of WYFF TV-4 (NBC – Greenville, Spartanburg), as of April 2021 overdose deaths in this populous Upstate county were running well ahead of 2020 numbers – which were already 25 percent higher than the previous year.
Opioids factored in 78 percent of these deaths, Houck noted – quoting data from Greenville county senior deputy coroner Kent Dill.
“It’s out of hand,” one family member of an Upstate addict told me this week. “People are dying pretty much daily up here (but) you’d think we live in Pleasantville.”
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“Something is going on with the drugs up here,” the family member added. “And suddenly (fentanyl) is everywhere. People didn’t even know they were getting it. They thought it was heroin – but it’s definitely fentanyl.”
The family member who spoke with me said they had to revive their loved one after “he totally stopped breathing” from a fentanyl-related overdose last week. Upon arriving in the emergency room at a nearby hospital, the gravity of the situation quickly became apparent.
“There were at least four different families in there for the same reason,” the family member told me.
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, “are now the most common drugs involved in drug overdose deaths in the United States,” NIH warns. And according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally made fentanyl.”
I will make sure to bring FITSNews’ readers the latest SCDHEC drug overdose data when it is released in September. In the meantime, I will continue to call attention to this issue on both a professional and a personal level.
Finally, if anyone is struggling with addiction there is help …
You can start by calling the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national help line at 800-662-HELP (4357) or clicking on this link from the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS), which includes a map of treatment centers in the Palmetto State.
Or … call a friend.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina and before that he was an alt-rock bass player and a dive bar bouncer. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children. And yes, he has LOTS of hats (including the above-pictured Norfolk Tides’ “battleship chains” lid).
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