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Drug overdoses on track to kill record number of North Carolinians this year

 Naloxone is a medicine used to treat a known or suspected opioid overdose. More than 70% of drug overdose deaths in North Carolina involve opioids.
Naloxone is a medicine used to treat a known or suspected opioid overdose. More than 70% of drug overdose deaths in North Carolina involve opioids.

Drug overdoses are on track to kill a record number of North Carolin a reside nts this year. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predictsthe state will see a 43% jump in overdose deaths compared to 2020.

The state Medical Examiner’s Office reported2,939 suspected overdose deaths in North Carolina from January to September of this year, compared to 2,347 during the same time period in 2020 — a 25% increase. In 2020, more than 93,000 people died of a drug overdose across the U.S., reflecting a rise of nearly 30% from 2019.

In Mecklenburg County, suspected overdose cases have increased at least 15% so far in 2021, according to the County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Overdose deaths have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic in part because supply chain problems have led to more contaminated drugs, said Elyse Powell, State Opioid Coordinator with North Carolina’s Department of Health and Human Services. Cocaine or heroin might be laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl or mixed with xylazine, an animal tranquilizer.

“It’s just harder to protect yourself (and) prevent overdoses if you have no idea what’s in your supply,” Powell said.

The pandemic has also made it harder for many people to access drug use treatment or services like fentanyl test strips and the overdose reversal drug naloxone, Powell said, with people losing their jobs or homes or health insurance. It’s also taken a psychological toll.

“The pandemic was good for nobody’s mental health,” Powell said. “We’re seeing not just increases in overdoses but increases in suicide and self harm, increases in anxiety … just the overall mental health impact of the pandemic also applies to people who are struggling with addiction.”

Increasing drug overdose deaths in North Carolina is not new. According to Powell, the state has seen a “steady increase” in drug overdose deaths over the past 15 years. And more than 70% of overdose deaths in the state involve opioids, including heroin and fentanyl, she said.

There has also been a recent uptick in the number of overdose deaths that involve more than one kind of drug. While a decade ago, the majority of overdose deaths usually involved just one kind of substance, Powell said now the patterns of drug use are shifting and more people are mixing different kinds of drugs, like opioids and amphetamines.

Copyright 2021 WFAE

Claire Donnelly is WFAE's health reporter. She previously worked at NPR member station KGOU in Oklahoma and also interned at WBEZ in Chicago and WAMU in Washington, D.C. She holds a master's degree in journalism from Northwestern University and attended college at the University of Virginia, where she majored in Comparative Literture and Spanish. Claire is originally from Richmond, Virginia. In her free time, Claire likes listening to podcasts and trying out new recipes.