ROCKINGHAM — FirstHealth EMS used Narcan to revive more people overdosing on drugs in Richmond County in 2017 than in the previous two years combined, according to data released by the hospital system in December, prompting crews to double the amount of the antidote stored on ambulances.
Marvin Hudson, training officer for FirstHealth, told attendees at a leadership meeting in December that EMS treated 43 patients for overdose in 2015, 42 in 2016, and 87 in 2017. Hudson could not specify what drugs were taken in these instances, nor how many times Narcan had to be applied to each patient, which can be vary depending on how strong the drug is. It’s also unclear if the drugs were illegal or accidental overdoses of prescribed medicine.
FirstHealth Director Matthew Harmody said he made the recommendation that ambulances double their Narcan stock because of the prevalence of synthetic opioids that have a higher potency than heroin — such as fentanyl, which can be 10 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, especially when combined with other drugs that make it enter the user’s system faster.
EMS was never in danger of running out of Narcan due to the frequency of overdoses, according to EMS Director Buddy Williams. The issue was how fast they were going through what they already had due to stronger drugs becoming more common. Williams stressed the need to raise awareness about how easy it is to become addicted to opioids, even those obtained legally.
“We’ve got to educate people because I know nobody goes out and plans to get addicted — it starts out innocent enough and then it balloons,” Williams said. “I don’t think these people are bad people by any means, it’s just the way things happen. You look in the mirror one day and you’re looking at an addict.”
Williams said EMS tends to be reactive when it comes to new health crises.
“We are wanting to be more proactive,” he said. “This may be the first step to doing that kind of thing.”
Richmond County Sheriff James Clemmons said his deputies have been equipped with Narcan for more than a year, and used it three times in 2017. Hamlet Police Chief Scott Waters said his officers have had the antidote for at least two months but have not had to use it to this point.
This spike in overdoses comes as North Carolina sounds alarm bells at every level of government that opioid use, whether prescribed or not, is becoming an epidemic.
Sen. Tom McInnis sponsored the Strengthen Opioid Misuse Prevention or STOP Act of 2017, passed in June, which limits doctors to prescribing no more than a five-day supply of opioids for pain relief on the first consultation. The bill also requires medical providers to record prescriptions for controlled substances electronically and participate in a shared system to prevent “doctor shopping,” the practice of going from one doctor to the next asking for new prescriptions.
The Richmond County Department of Social Services in June formed the Drug Endangered Family Task Force under guidelines laid out in Gov. Roy Cooper’s Opiod Action Plan. The task force is working to compile opioid use data from county treatment providers to distribute to residents.
The Richmond County Board of Commissioners this week passed a resolution declaring an opioid crisis in the county. The county is currently ranked fourth in the state in opioid pills per resident at 132.2 — well above the state average of 78.3 — according to statistics from the County Leadership Forum on Opioid Abuse. The county’s rate of unintentional medication and drug overdose rates are also significantly higher than the state average at 18.8 deaths per 100,000 residents compared to 12.2 statewide, according to the N.C. State Center for Health Statistics.
Harmody said in an email that opioids are a growing concern in Richmond County and the best way to address the issue is focus on education and prevention.
“The opioid crisis is growing both in size and risk. Many street drugs are laced with powerful synthetic opioids in which a single dose can be lethal,” Harmody said in an email. “EMS … can only do so much for an acute overdose. The real bang for the buck is applying resources upfront in education and prevention.”
Reach Gavin Stone at 910-817-2674 or [email protected]