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Charleston County agencies are forming a new comprehensive approach to combat the area’s growing opioid crisis thanks to substantial extra funding on the way. 

“In the last three years, we’ve seen at least triple the number of overdoses than then we’ve seen in prior years,” said Caitlin Kratz, program manager for Charleston County Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS), also known as Charleston Center.

Kratz

Opioid-related deaths have increased at a higher rate in Charleston County within the past year than the national rate, Kratz told the Charleston City Paper. While the U.S. has seen about a 30% increase in deaths, South Carolina has seen a 45% increase.  

Charleston County will receive a soon-to-be-determined portion of funds from a $26 billion national opioid lawsuit settlement in the next 60 to 90 days, Kratz said. The S.C. Attorney General’s office in 2019 brought the suit against the three largest U.S. opioid distributors and manufacturer Johson & Johnson’s Janssen Pharmaceuticals.

“Now that we have the opioid settlement funds [coming], South Carolina is looking at around $360 million that will go to [counties] and local municipalities — Charleston County being one of them,” Kratz said. “We’re really, really fortunate. With these new federal dollars coming down, it’s going to push us in a forward direction to combating this opioid epidemic. The [Covid-19] pandemic certainly exacerbated it. 

“This money is coming to put boots on the ground … so we can do the work.”

Charleston County leaders and community partners will submit this week a proposal of how to allocate the funding to the S.C. Opioid Recovery Fund Board, and once it is approved, the board will begin releasing the money, Kratz said. The allotment has not been determined yet. 

The 18-year payout will sustain measures targeted to opioid prevention, intervention and treatment, Kratz said. This will bolster Charleston Center’s residential services, medication assisted treatment programs and additional resources. 

“We’re looking [to develop] an intercept map where certain agencies can use it collectively to input data — so it’s not only figuring out where the overdoses are, but what was the follow up,” Kratz said. “That’s going to be important data. Are we linking [drug users] into treatment? Did they go to the emergency room? Or was it a fatality? We’re looking at [data input strategies] that are going to be more in depth [and] give us strategic information so we can make [community response] programming around that.” 

Funds from the $26 billion opioid lawsuit settlement are being released to America’s 52 states and territories as well as thousands of local governments, according to the state Attorney General’s office. 

Coroner’s Office’s new
equipment, emergency plan

The Charleston County Coroner’s Office in October 2022 was awarded $625,212 by the Lowcountry Healthcare Coalition through a grant from the Assistant Secretary of Preparedness and Response (ASPR), said Charleston County Coroner Bobbi Jo O’Neal. 

The Coroner’s Office used funds to streamline its drug-related death reporting system with the purchase of a rapid toxicology analyzer and a Lodox full-body X-ray scanner. The analyzer went into operation in January, and the scanner will be installed this summer. The team at the Coroner’s Office is also currently utilizing funds to develop an official plan with the Lowcountry Healthcare Coalition to formulate a comprehensive response to aid families in the event of a major crisis in the Charleston area and neighboring counties. 

The two new pieces of equipment will help the Coroner’s office get immediate, real-time data on which drug is present in individuals who have potentially died of a drug overdose and upload the data within days into a national tracking system called the Overdose Mapping and Application Program (ODMAP) map, O’Neal said.  

“We can screen [individuals] immediately and know whether our suspicions are correct,” O’Neal said. “It helps us determine whether or not we need to do an autopsy or not. This will help us make faster decisions. If we run a test, we can get results in less than 30 minutes, and we’re able to know what we’re screening for. 

“Then we can advise public health [officials] and law enforcement, especially if we’re seeing drugs and deaths that are close in proximity to each other in the same neighborhoods — and if we’re seeing the same drugs,” she said. “It allows [officials and police officers] to take a proactive stance and put the word out that there’s something on the streets that they need to be aware of.”


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