What's causing the rise in overdoses in some counties? Experts point to fentanyl

Experts say they're seeing an increase in overdoses lately and that some users are getting drugs that they don't realize are laced with fentanyl.

Just this week, three people were found dead at a motel in Dunn in Harnett County after apparently overdosing. A 1-year-old baby was found inside unharmed. Early signs pointed to the presence of fentanyl, though the cause of death hasn't been confirmed.

Harnett County EMS has seen a rise in overdoses since 2019 -- just this month already responding to 39 reported overdoses.

There were 303 overdose calls in 2019; 867 in 2020 and 873 this year already, according to Harnett County EMS Chief Alex Belanovich. Chief Belanovich said Dunn responded to six reported overdose calls on Saturday and one on Sunday, in addition to the incident in the motel.

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Justin Garrity is Director of Recovery Services for Healing Transitions Men's Campus in Raleigh, a recovery center. Healing Transitions provides long-term recovery, overnight shelter, non-medical detox and family services at no cost to men and women across its two campuses, seeing a combined average of over 300 people each night. More than 80 percent of the program's graduates remain drug and alcohol-free after one year, according to Healing Transitions.

Healing Transitions works with Wake County EMS and, after overdoses, follows up with survivors to provide support.

Garrity said he's also seen an increase in overdoses since 2019.

"It's not very surprising considering fentanyl is much more prevalent in heroin supply and other drug supplies," Garrity said. "Also with COVID, and the isolation, that's caused a lot of people to not have the typical access they would to their recovery supports. So instead of being able to go to various meetings, or meet up with a positive network, they're kind of trapped inside, isolated a little bit more and that isolation can easily translate into a return to use."

The Nash County Sheriff's Office responded to 38 overdose calls with three deaths in 2020. So far this year, they've responded to 34 with five deaths.
Jesse Bennett, of the grassroots North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, said there's a rise in overdoses because of the prevalence of fentanyl.

"It doesn't mix well," Bennett said. "So you may have one individual, who are getting the same thing from the same dealer that are getting two completely different kind of substances that are measured out. It's a really potent product, and it's just really tricky at the street level to try to kind of measure it out and get it to the right consistency so folks aren't overdosing."

"I believe COVID has also messed up some supply lines with getting substances -- heroin and fentanyl, and so forth -- into North Carolina, southeast America, whatnot," Garrity said. "So I think that disruption has also caused more fatality because folks aren't used to what they're getting or they're getting something new and it's not what they're used to."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported overdose deaths nationwide rose by close to 30 percent in 2020 and by 38 percent in North Carolina from February 2020 to February 2021, though that number could be underreported.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health & Human Services Opioid Action Plan Data dashboard, more than 8 North Carolinians died each day of a drug overdose in 2020.

From 2000 to 2020, more than 28,000 North Carolinians died of a drug overdose.

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