Suspected opioid overdoses treated at North Carolina emergency rooms have increased at a rate more than double that of the Southeast as a whole in recent months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports.
Those visits rose 31 percent between the third quarter of 2016 and the same quarter of 2017, the report says. That compares to a regional increase of 14 percent. North Carolina was identified as one of 10 states with significant increases during that period.
While a 2016 federal study suggested that the nation's opioid use might be stabilizing, the CDC report shows a substantial increase. North Carolina ER visits for overdoses rose sharply in the second and third quarters of 2017 compared to the two previous quarters.
Despite the increases, the Southeast still trails other regions in suspected overdoses. ER visits in the Midwest rose nearly 70 percent in the same period and those in the West went up 40 percent.
"The increases occurred in most demographic groups and U.S. regions and suggest a worsening of the epidemic into late 2017 in several states, possibly related to the wide variation in the availability and potency of illicit drug products (e.g., fentanyl sold as or mixed into heroin) that increase overdose risk and drive increases in mortality," the report said.
In response to the epidemic, some North Carolina counties — including Mecklenburg — have joined a federal lawsuit against the producers and distributors of opioids. One third of the state's 100 counties had more opioid prescriptions than people in 2016, the state health department has reported.
Last June, state lawmakers passed a law to more closely regulate painkiller prescriptions, which kills an average of more than three people a day in North Carolina.
The CDC report analyzed emergency room data from 45 states. It found that suspected opioid overdoses rose by an average of 5.6 percent per quarter, with the largest increases in the Southwest, Midwest and West.
More than 63,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2016, a 21 percent increase from 2015. Heroin and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are driving the increases, the CDC said.
Overdose rates continue to be most prevalent in large metropolitan areas the size of Charlotte and Raleigh, the report said.
Emergency department data can serve as early-warning systems to flag changes in overdoses and respond to them such as by increasing supplies of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, the study concluded.
"Opioid overdoses continue to increase in most jurisdictions, and rapid response efforts and a multisectoral approach are needed to reduce and prevent overdoses and their associated morbidity and mortality," it said.