NORTH CAROLINA (WSPA) – Some 4,041 North Carolinians died from a drug overdose in 2021, according to data released by the state’s Department of Health and Human Services.

The figure is a 21% increase from the number of overdose deaths in 2020 and marks the highest number of overdose deaths in a single year on record in the state.

 “North Carolina’s communities and families are meeting the tragedy of overdose deaths and the opioid crisis head-on, every day,” said NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley. “With the right treatment and support, recovery is possible, and individuals can go on to live full and productive lives. Our goal is to break the costly cycle of addiction and the smartest investment we can make to do that is expanding Medicaid.”

In an effort to reach people before they experience a crisis, NCDHHS has increased peer support and collegiate recovery programs to get people the care they need at the right time and place.

The department also launched the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which offers 24/7 access to trained crisis counselors who can help people experiencing behavioral health-related distress.

Since the launch of the easy-to-remember number in July, the NC Suicide and Crisis Lifeline call center has seen an 85% increase in callers identifying “substance use” as their primary reason for calling 988.

 The state said the rise in overdose deaths in recent years is being driven by illegally manufactured fentanyl.

In 2021, more than 77% of overdose deaths in the state likely involved fentanyl, often in combination with other substances.

In response, NCDHHS is expanding access to treatment and prevention. Efforts include the distribution of more than 719,000 units of naloxone to agencies across the state to assist in overdose response efforts.

The department is working to increase access to medication-assisted treatment by changing regulations so mobile medication units can provide methadone and other FDA-approved medications for the treatment of opioid use disorders in North Carolina.

The department will also be working with EMS agencies in eight counties to allow them to offer buprenorphine as a medication to treat people who have an opioid use disorder.

The Department Health and Human Services said the COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the opioid crisis.

Overdose deaths have increased 72% since 2019, with a 40% jump in 2020 during the first year of the pandemic. The number of people who have died from overdose has also worsened in some historically marginalized communities.

The overall number of overdose deaths is still highest among non-Hispanic white people; however, when measured as a portion of population, American Indian/Indigenous people have the highest overdose death rate.

The percentage by which overdose death rates increased from 2019 rates to 2021 rates was highest among Black/African American people with a 139% increase in their overdose death rate.