Opioid overdoses continue to increase, funding from national settlement coming to hire more health department staff

Published 12:05 am Friday, May 26, 2023

SALISBURY — So far in 2023, the Rowan County Health Department has reported 321 opioid overdose cases between January and April — a 13 percent increase from the same time last year.

March and April saw a total of 153 overdoses this year, slightly higher than the same time last year, which had a total of 148. While those months only saw eight overdoses resulting in death in 2022, this year there have been nine. Overall, 2022 had a total of 15 overdose deaths between January and April, while there have only been 12 in 2023. Health Department Director Alyssa Harris attributes this to efforts to expand Narcan access through the department’s partnership with all emergency responders.

The Post previously reported that January and February 2023 also saw a 33 percent increase in overdoses compared to those two months in 2022.

At this rate, the county could potentially see close to 1,000 overdoses reported by the end of the year, surpassing last year’s total of 902. That could make 2023 the third straight year overdoses have increased; there were 755 in 2021 and 626 in 2020.

Earlier this year, state and county officials met to discuss Rowan County receiving a $15 million share of the $26 billion opioid settlement the nation’s three largest drug distributors — McKesson, Cardinal Health and AmerisourceBergen — and one manufacturer, Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and its parent company Johnson & Johnson, were forced to pay out. At that meeting, Harris announced that those funds will be disbursed incrementally over a period of 15-17 years.

The first payment of those funds came this year with the county receiving almost $2 million. Part of those funds will be used to hire more staff for the health department’s different programs that deal with substance use including a manager, senior peer support specials, harm reduction coordinator and a community paramedic, according to Harris.

Only about $523,000 of the $2 million is expected to be spent this year as the health department will first be using existing grant funds previously received. Harris also explained that “as the amounts for the settlement decrease each year moving forward we want to maintain a level budget so that we don’t run into a situation of not having sustainability for positions and programming.”

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has put Rowan County in the highest category for overdoses resulting in deaths since at least 2019. According to 2021 statistics, the county has an overdose death rate of 61.2 per 100,000 residents, far higher than the state’s rate of 38.5 per 100,000. The county also has a higher rate of children in foster care due to parental substance use: 49.8 per 100,000 residents.

A 2021 community health survey administered by the health department and Novant Health found 47.1 percent of county residents listed substance use as a top community concern, only behind crime/violence.