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Fentanyl played large role in the more 4,000 overdose deaths in North Carolina in 2021, a record number

Health officials say the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the crisis.

February 23, 2023, 12:55 PM

A record number of drug overdose deaths were recorded in North Carolina in 2021, according to new data from the state Department of Health and Human Services.

In 2021, a total of 4,041 people died from drug overdoses, the highest figure reported in The Tar Heel State in a single year.

It's also a 22% increase from the 3,304 fatal overdoses recorded in 2020.

"North Carolina's communities and families are meeting the tragedy of overdose deaths and the opioid crisis head on, every day," NCDHHS Secretary Kody Kinsley said in a statement.

Annual Number of Overdose Deaths in North Carolina
Annual Number of Overdose Deaths in North Carolina
ABC News Photo Illustration

"With the right treatment and support, recovery is possible, and individuals can go on to live full and productive lives. Our goal is to break the costly cycle of addiction and the smartest investment we can make to do that is expanding Medicaid," the statement continued.

According to the department, a high number of overdose deaths were linked to fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that is between 50 and 100 times stronger than morphine.

An estimated 77% of the total overdose deaths in 2021 involved illegally manufactured fentanyl, which was often mixed with other substances.

This is similar to what's been seen on a macro level across the United. States. In 2021, a record 107,622 Americans died from drug poisoning or overdose, with 66% linked to synthetic opioids like fentanyl, the Department of Justice said in a press release last year.

During his State of the Union address earlier this month, President Joe Biden said he wanted to address the fentanyl crisis with steps including more drug detection machines at the southern border and stronger penalties for those who traffic the drug.

In response, the NCDHHS said it was expanding mobile units that could distribute medication that treats opioid use disorders and naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose.

The NCDHHS said the COVID-19 pandemic also exacerbated a crisis that was already in fully swing by the time the virus spread around the world.

Overdose deaths were 72% higher than the 2,352 recorded in North Carolina in 2019, data showed. Fatal overdoses rose by 40% in the state in just the first year of the pandemic.

When it came to breakdown by race/ethnicity, clear disparities could be seen.

PHOTO: Oxycodone pills are shown in this June 17, 2019 file photo.
Oxycodone pills are shown in this June 17, 2019 file photo.
Keith Srakocic/AP, FILE

Overdose death rates among white North Carolinians rose 53% from 2019 to 2021, from 27.4 per 100,000 residents to 42.0 per 100,000.

By comparison, rates among state residents of American Indian or Indigenous descent spiked by 117% from 43.3 per 100,000 in 2019 to 94.1 per 100,000 in 2021.

Meanwhile, Black residents had the highest overdose death rate increase, going from 16.1 per 100,000 in 2019 to 38.5 per 100,000 in 2021 -- a 139% jump.

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