Opioid overdoses up 50% in S.C. this year amid COVID-19 pandemic

Opioid overdose rates climbing as COVID-19 pandemic drags on

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The COVID-19 pandemic is taking a toll on South Carolina’s health beyond just the virus.

Wednesday, state lawmakers heard from medical leaders about the rising number of opioid overdoses in the state since the pandemic began.

The SC Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services Director Sara Goldsby gave a presentation to the House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee.

She said rising levels of isolation and anxiety are causing people to turn to substance abuse, or hamper the recovery of those suffering from addiction.

She presented department research showing the number of suspected opioid overdoses that EMS teams responded to statewide from January through June 2020 was 52% higher than the same time in 2019.

In June 2020, EMS teams responded to 900 suspected opioid overdoses. In June 2019, teams responded to 527.

Goldsby took questions from the committee and said prescriptions appear to be down for opioids.

However, she said the distribution in the black market remains.

“Around 30% of what we’re seeing in terms of suspected overdose causes is related to heroin, the rest if of that is pills and other substances,” she said.

“Largely the illicit look-alike pharmaceuticals that are highly potent.”

South Carolina Medical Association Executive Committee Member Dr. Wesely Frierson spoke to the committee virtually on his experiences with the Opioid Epidemic.

“To walk in to find one of my nurses holding a baby and when I say a baby, I mean a child that could not walk and that was dependent on a bottle. It was very confusing to me because I had never seen that before,” he said.

"When I walked in to find her mother laying on the stretcher after she'd overdosed, I was very disturbed by that situation."

Goldsby told the committee that telehealth options have been successful in helping those who struggle with addiction during the pandemic.

She referenced the SC Hopes response initiative that’s operated since June 2020. It aims to help with addiction, mental health, and support healthcare workers on the front lines.

She said the program has received 279 calls since June 1.

Rep. Chip Huggins (R- Lexington County) said lawmakers are eyeing broadband expansion to rural areas, something that would help the telehealth effort.

“I think we’ve all made a commitment as a General Assembly to try to work on that very heavily, so we can increase this and make the best of what we’ve got. Just trying to make sure they can prescribe, they can get to teh patients, they can get to folks through the telehealth that we’ve got out there,” he said.

Committee members also discussed expanding EMS services and the availability of Naloxone among other solutions to combat the opioid epidemic.

Goldsby ended her presentation by calling for the following:

  • Anticipation of a greater need for services for state residents
  • Work on a sustainable overdose reversal program
  • Ongoing surveillance and rapid response with local mobilization across sectors
  • Virtual behavioral health services included across all health plans with consistency
  • Addressing barriers that prevent underserved populations from accessing teleservices (internet in rural, low-income communities)
  • Flexibility and creative solutions to leverage all assets

Those in need of addiction help can contact the national helpline at 1-800-622-HELP (4357)

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