At least a dozen patients overdosing on heroin or opiates have come through the Palmetto Health Richland hospital emergency room on Dr. Steve Shelton’s watch this year.
And he’s just one doctor. In one emergency room.
“It is a nationwide problem, and Columbia, South Carolina, is not immune to it,” said Shelton, who also works with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department as medical director for the special response team.
“We have plenty of opiate addiction out there, and there’s plenty of heroin available for those looking for it, he said. “We can’t be ignorant of it.”
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As opioid addictions continue to rise, so has the number of bodies found in public bathrooms, parks and even people’s homes. Preliminary data compiled by The New York Times shows a 19 percent increase in deaths related to drug overdoses in 2016, driven in great part by the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Federal data compiled by the newspaper revealed that more than 2 million Americans were estimated to be dependent on opioids in 2015. An additional 95 million used prescription painkillers – more than used tobacco.
And data suggests the problem, whether from prescription drugs or drugs bought on the street, has gotten worse in 2017.
Comparing South Carolina’s numbers to those of the rest of the country is difficult, because the state health agency that’s in charge of tracking the information has not finished compiling 2016 numbers. But the data that Richland and Lexington County coroners have tracked indicates deaths are on the rise in the Midlands, and the majority can be attributed to opioid-related overdoses.
And the latest street cocktails are incredibly deadly.
“If somebody is using ... heroin or opioids off the streets they are playing Russian roulette,” said Richland County Coroner Gary Watts.
South Carolina’s lawmakers, however, are attempting to get ahead of the curve. On Tuesday, Gov. Henry McMaster held a ceremonial signing for a law requiring doctors to review a state prescription database before prescribing narcotics to ensure the patient has not seen a different doctor in previous days for additional medication.
The practice is referred to as a “doctor shopping.” The law aims to curb it by clearing a path to have prescribers who knowingly fail to report patient information to the database face a fine of no more than $2,000, no more than two years in prison or both.
“It’s a great step forward,” said McMaster of the law.
The new law is one of about 16 bills filed by four legislators earlier this year in hopes of addressing the state’s growing use of opioids. Lawmakers say they are determined to ensure South Carolina does not reach opioid crisis levels like in Florida and Ohio.
In the meantime, the body count attributed to heroin and other opioids continues to mount. If the data compiled by The New York Times remains true once the federal government is done compiling its numbers, then drug overdoses would become the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.
In Richland County, deaths attributed to drug overdoses in 2016 totaled 63; 44 were related to opioids, Watts said.
And 2017 is slated to outpace last year’s numbers. Through late April, 27 deaths in Richland County could be attributed to opioids.
In Lexington County, County Coroner Margaret Fisher’s office had confirmed 18 overdose deaths for 2017. Ten could be attributed to opioids or opiates.
Nationwide, heroin has made a comeback in recent years as states crack down on doctors and clinics who prescribe too many addicting narcotics to patients, forcing addicts to turn to the streets to find their next high.
But unlike controlled prescription narcotics, the strength of a heroin bag can vary widely, depending on what the drug is laced with.
Bills that sought to allow dealers to be charged with involuntary manslaughter failed to advance to the floor of either chamber this legislative year. But Rep. Phyllis Henderson, who authored the bill McMaster signed on Tuesday, said it’s also up to the public to be aware.
The Greenville Republican said the rising number of deaths – despite increased attention to the issue – could just be a lack of education of the public and even doctors, who were presented with narcotics as the end-all solution for patients with chronic pain 20 years ago.
“The public needs to understand that you have to be careful because of the dangers,” Henderson said. “Buyer, beware!”
BY THE NUMBERS
Regional opioid-related deaths
44 in 2016 in Richland County
27 so far in 2017 in Richland County
42 in 2016 in Lexington County
10 so far in 2017 in Lexinton County
SOURCE: Richland and Lexington counties coroners offices
South Carolina opioid-related deaths
573 in 2015
504 in 2014
SOURCE: The S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control