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2021 North Carolina Overdose Deaths Highest on Record

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Tuesday, March 7, 2023   

More than 4,000 people in North Carolina died of overdoses in 2021, the highest number of overdose deaths in a single year on record in the state, according to recently released data.

Dr. Susan Kansagra, assistant secretary for public health with the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, said before the pandemic, the state's opioid overdose deaths had been leveling off, but now, she said they are on the rise, and communities have spent the past few years grappling with the loss of loved ones.

"We're seeing an increase in poly substance use as well," Kansaghra said. "Not just deaths caused from opioid overdose, but really we're seeing multiple substances have been used. "

She said the manufactured opioid called fentanyl is driving fatalities. In 2021, more than 77% of overdose deaths in the state likely involved fentanyl. The state's 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline offers 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing distress. Since the launch of 988 last summer, the call center has seen an 85% increase in people identifying substance use as their primary reason for calling.

Kansagra added health insurance is a major component of addressing the opioid epidemic. Lawmakers recently reached a bipartisan agreement that puts the state on a path to allow access to health care for an additional 600, 000 North Carolinians.

"One of the things we know in North Carolina is that we we are working on Medicaid expansion. And that's really important so that people have the ability to get high-quality care," Kansagra said.

She said the state has also expanded its mobile crisis care resources, where a person experiencing a behavioral-health or substance-use crisis can receive an assessment on the spot, whether at home, school, work or other location.


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