The number of emergency-department visits related to opioid overdoses is down statewide compared with this time last year, according to recently released statistics from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
The state shares the number of emergency-room visits each month as part of its Opioid Action Plan, which provides an overview of an epidemic that has killed more than 16,000 North Carolinians since 1999.
Statewide, the number of emergency-department, or ED, visits related to opioid overdoses from January through the end of October was 5,585, down from 5,809 for the same time period in 2018. Looking just at the month of October, there were 512 opioid overdose ED visits in 2019, compared with 560 in October 2018.
While Forsyth and several surrounding counties saw a drop in ED visits, Davidson County is experiencing an increase, with a rate that is among the highest in North Carolina. In October, there were 13 such visits in Davidson County, a rate of 7.9 visits for every 100,000 residents, above the state average of 5.0. That’s the 10th highest rate in the state among counties with 10 or more ED visits.
Through October, ED visits in Davidson County are up 14% for the same period in 2018, from 146 visits to 128 visits.
County officials said the number of ED visits doesn’t necessarily amount to an upswing in opioid use among residents.
The number of overdose calls Davidson County EMS receives has changed little since last year, said Larry James, the director of the county’s emergency medical services department.
The number of EMS calls peaked in 2017 and early 2018, he said.
“We’ve either plateaued or experiencing a slight downward trend,” said James, who has worked with the county’s EMS for 32 years. “We’re not climbing anymore. And that’s education and more availability of Narcan out in the field.”
Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, an opioid-reversing drug that an increasing number of first responders carry with them, including law-enforcement agencies. According to the N.C. Harm Reduction Coalition, the personnel in 259 law-enforcement agencies in the state now carry Narcan with them, compared with 136 agencies in 2016.
About 2,700 opioid overdoses have been reversed so far this year, compared with 2,448 in 2018.
James said his crews have been carrying Narcan for years. Officers in the Lexington, Thomasville and High Point police departments also carry it.
Janna Walker, a public-health strategist for Davidson County, said the statistics released by the state give her office valuable information, such as where to target education and other prevention strategies.
For instance, nearly 90% of ED opioid overdose visits in October were made by white people; and of that 90%, about 40% were between the ages of 25 and 34 and nearly 30% were between the ages of 35 and 44.
“There is no foolproof solution,” Walker said, “but we continue to work with our community partners.”
Those partners include treatment providers, Davidson Medical Ministries, churches and local businesses, she said.
The county also hired a substance-abuse coordinator this year.
One bright spot for the area is in Surry County, which had one of the highest ED rates in the state last year. In October, Surry County had fewer than five ED visits, and for the year to date, it has had 78 opioid overdose visits to the ED, down 102 last year, when it ranked second in the state for most visits per 100,000 residents.
Stanly County had the highest monthly rate of opioid overdose ED visits with 17.9.
Kelly Haight Connor, a spokesperson for the state, said the monthly report on ED visits is the most timely data source for keeping track of the opioid crisis. Other statistics, such as the number of deaths, can take months to process and compile.
“It’s just one piece of the epidemic,” Connor said of the ED data.
The state also looks at fentanyl use, pills dispensed and Narcan reversals. Those statistics are released either quarterly or at the end of the year.