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Charleston County may have a new tool in the war on opioid-related deaths.

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office received $280,000 in state funding in October to hire a forensic analyst who will focus on improving regional efforts in fatal overdose investigations.

Opioids don’t know county lines,” said Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal. “We need to make sure all of our data is complete in order to fully be able to impact our communities.”

Charleston County had 183 unintentional drug overdoses in 2021, she said. This year through the end of October, there have been 167 confirmed accidental overdoses and 30 pending cases. 

The coroner’s office will use the funds from a South Carolina Department of Public Safety grant program to streamline data entry and to purchase a rapid toxicology machine, O’Neal told City Paper. The new position and technology will ensure clarity and uniformity in the information the coroner’s office shares with area coroners, law enforcement and opioid death-related preventative organizations, she said.

“Some of the smaller jurisdictions around us, for example Georgetown County, don’t have the resources to have someone in the coroner’s office input data into the [Overdose Mapping and Application Program (ODMAP)], which is where a lot of data comes that we use for determining where drugs are located in real-time and what resources to [deploy] into the community.”

The office’s new forensic analyst will compile information into a shared case management system for Charleston, Georgetown, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, providing accurate data to area stakeholders who are trying to prevent opioid related deaths, O’Neal said. 

For example, the forensic analyst will input data into the ODMAP that impacts planning and resource allocation to combat the opioid epidemic across jurisdictions. The analyst will also input anecdotal data gathered during drug overdose investigations, like whether the person received treatment before or had access to Naloxone, a medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose. The coroner’s office can track this data within case management systems.

The rapid toxicology machine that the coroner’s office is purchasing with the grant money will screen for drugs present in a person’s system at the time of autopsy, O’Neal said. Normally, this information takes about four to six weeks to acquire. Quick toxicology screening means real-time data can be shared with treatment centers and police departments to identify what drugs are showing up in the community, which will overall impact preventative efforts. 

“I’m not aware of anyone across the country that is doing something like this — where the neighboring counties are all communicating and working together,” O’Neal said. “At the end of this grant, which [lasts] three years, we will have learned a lot about how we share data and how that impacts our community. Then we may be able to expand it to include more of South Carolina.”

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