Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was another epidemic occurring across the United States that was claiming many lives – opioid overdoses.
With more than 33,000 deaths per year from both prescription and illegal opioid overdoses, roughly half of these deaths were attributable to prescription opioids, which include hydrocodone (Vicodin), Oxycodone (OxyContin/Percocet) and fentanyl. Oftentimes, many turned to using illegal opioids, such as heroin, due to its availability and cost.
Since March 2020, South Carolina has seen a steady increase in suspected opioid overdoses and first responder Narcan administrations. In May alone, EMS responded to an estimated 915 suspected opioid overdoses in South Carolina, the highest monthly number in the state’s history, and nearly twice that reported for May 2019. Year-to-date, suspected opioid overdoses were 50% higher than for the same timeframe last year.
With COVID restrictions, individuals are struggling with higher levels of isolation and anxiety, which is causing people to turn to substance abuse, or hamper the recovery of those already suffering from addiction.
The City of Charleston has not been immune to this current trend. Due to the significance of South Carolina’s continuing overdose death trend, Charleston’s Addiction Crisis Task Force (ACT Force) was brought in to battle the epidemic. The ACT Force is an assembly of local law enforcement officers, first responders, drug treatment providers, mental health professionals, physicians, clinical pharmacists, education experts, High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area (HIDTA) intelligence analysts, drug and family court judges, and citizen volunteers working collectively to find answers and implement solutions to the drug overdose epidemic and addiction crisis.
In 2016, the Charleston Police Department became the first in the Lowcountry to train officers and supply them with Narcan (Naloxone nasal spray) to treat an overdose victim before EMS arrived on scene. This additional tool has greatly improved the chances of survival for an overdose victim.
A recent example of this life-saving measure occurred on Dec. 8, 2020. At approximately 4:45 a.m., Charleston Police Officer Dillon Chow responded to the area of Huger Street and Morrison Drive for a reported overdose. Upon his arrival, he located two people, male and female, under the overpass and found that they were unconscious and unresponsive to any stimulus.
Officer Chow started to attend to the male subject while EMS, who just arrived on scene, began to treat the female. Officer Chow noticed that the male had a weak pulse, was warm to the touch and appeared to be barely breathing. Having seen drug paraphernalia in the surrounding area and recalling his training, he identified the signs of an opioid overdose and immediately administered Narcan to the individual. Both parties were transported to the hospital, the male survived but unfortunately the female passed away.
With Officer Chow’s alertness, attention to detail and quick response to administer Narcan, he was able to save the man’s life.
In 2020, there were 13 total incidents in which a Charleston police officer administered Narcan.
When officers respond to an overdose call, they are equipped not only with Narcan, but are also able to provide a “Pathway Initiative Resource” card to the overdose victims and/or their families in an effort to have victims seek treatment options and obtain Narcan to have on hand should a similar situation arise.
As the number of deaths from opioid misuse and abuse increases, it has become too easy to lose sight of those who have been impacted by the seemingly unstoppable epidemic. For those struggling with addiction, or the family members who are seeing this occur before their eyes, many struggle to find the right resources or are unaware of local resources that are available.
The Charleston Center offers outpatient services, medication-assisted treatment, medical detoxification, counseling, residential services for women and men, residential programs for women who are pregnant and/or parenting young children, and financial assistance is available. The center can be reached at 843-958-3300 or 843-722-0100 (24 hours).
Naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, is available without a prescription. For patients with insurance or payment concerns, many community distributors offer free doses of Narcan. For more information about availability, visit naloxonesavessc.org.
Additional information about DHEC opioid prevention programs for families and community organizations is available at scdhec.gov/opioid-epidemic.
Editor’s Note: For more information about the opioid epidemic and other drug-related fatalities in South Carolina, read the story on page 4.