Federal funds will support rural areas in North Carolina that have been impacted greatly by the opioid epidemic.
As opioid overdoses continue to climb, North Carolina anti-addiction advocates working the front lines of the crisis have been granted $1 million each to address the issue among in rural populations. The grants were given by the Department of Health and Human Services to Wilson and Robeson counties, rural areas in the state that had some of the highest overdose emergency department visit rates in July.
The epidemic has worsened amid the coronavirus pandemic as addiction rates have climbed. Isolation and the stress of economic uncertainty have impacted the mental health of many, worsening opioid use disorder symptoms and leading to more overdoses. North Carolina itself has witnessed a 15 percent spike in overdoses since the start of the crisis with many centers have closed or are offering limited space further complicating limited resource availability. June’s 7.6 unemployment percent rate in the state was also twice as high as it was before the pandemic, and North Carolina’s Emergency Department opioid-related visits have skyrocketed.
“The need doesn’t go away just because there is a pandemic,” said Bart Grimes, chief of behavioral health at Robeson Health Care Corporation, a grant recipient. “People may delay seeking [other types of] care, but with a psychiatric condition, they’re just going to show up.” He added, “Robeson Health operates six residential rehabilitation facilities with a collective 100 beds in Robeson and the surrounding counties. Demand for services has been steady for years, in part thanks to the trafficking of illegal substances through the county along the I-95 corridor.” At “22 visits per 100,000 residents,” the county had the highest rate of June opioid-related ED visits in the state.
In total, the Health Resources and Services Administration awarded $1 million grants to 89 organizations serving rural areas nationwide. The four North Carolina organizations included North Carolina Healthcare Quality Alliance, Robeson Health Care Corporation, United Way of Rutherford County and Wilson County Substance Prevention Coalition.
Robeson Health will use the money to construct a consortium of local organizations able to work with patients “along continuum of recovery, uniting disparate agencies and their programs into one seamless system,” Grimes said. The consortium will also attempt to fill service gaps, “including the lack of support groups and sober homes in the county,” he added.
A Wilson County agency also received the federal grant. According to June state data, Wilson had the third-highest rates of opioid overdose emergency department visits in North Carolina. State Department of Health data from that same month found five counties had the highest opioid overdose emergency department visits in the state per capita, including, “Robeson County: 22 overdoses per 100,000 people; Stokes County: 22 overdoses per 100,000 people; Wilson County: 20.9 overdoses per 100,000 people; Randolph County: 19.5 overdoses per 100,000 people; Rockingham County: 17.6 overdoses per 100,000 people.”
“Wilson County already has a robust network of organizations working to address the opioid crisis,” said Jeff Hill, director of the Wilson County Substance Prevention Coalition, which received the grant. The coalition intends to strengthen community access to naloxone and train practitioners to treat opioid addiction. Safe prescribing practices will be part of this training and funding will also go towards campaigns to help parents and teens understand the risk of opioid misuse.
“The county faces unique challenges when it comes to the opioid crisis,” Hill said, “because it is home to a manufacturing facility of OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma, which is facing numerous lawsuits for its role in fueling the opioid crisis. People who manufacture drugs may view opioids less as a threat and more as means to put food on the table. These deeply ingrained beliefs may mean that the county may never fully address the opioid crisis, especially not within a three-year grant cycle.” But he’s following the mantra, “Let us do as much work as we can, within [that] time frame.”