Home Local News OPIOID EPIDEMIC: Richmond County tops N.C. in fentanyl death rate; overdose stats...

OPIOID EPIDEMIC: Richmond County tops N.C. in fentanyl death rate; overdose stats exceed previous year

Illegal possession of fentanyl will be a felony, pending Gov. Roy Cooper's signature of Senate Bill 321.
William R. Toler - Richmond Observer

ROCKINGHAM — Richmond County had the highest fentanyl-positive death rate in North Carolina last year and drug overdoses continue to climb in 2023.

An updated report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner shows that Richmond County had the highest rate of fentanyl-positive deaths in 2022 among the state’s 100 counties.

The report, published July 6, shows Richmond County had 34 fentanyl-positive deaths, at a rate of 76.7 per 100,000 — more than twice the statewide rate of 30.1. There were 3,188 such deaths across North Carolina.

It should be noted that this data is provisional.

The graphic includes the following note: “Deaths included in this report tested positive for fentanyl at the time of the death when toxicology testing was performed. Toxicology results are based on analytical testing of specimens performed by NC OCME Toxicology. The detection of fentanyl only indicates deaths with positive fentanyl toxicology results. The presence of fentanyl at time of death does not necessarily indicate fentanyl as the cause of death.”

Rounding out the top 10 are:

  • Jones County – seven deaths, rate of 75.7
  • Craven County – 10 deaths, rate of 70.5
  • Robeson – 85 deaths, rate of 68.2
  • Rowan – 87 deaths, rate of 61.1
  • Randolph – 82 deaths, rate of 56.7
  • Pamlico – 7 deaths, rate of 55.1
  • Buncombe – 145 deaths, rate of 55
  • Rockingham – 50 deaths, rate of 54.8
  • Tyrrell – two deaths, rate of 53

Tyrrell, Jones and Pamlico are among the 10 least-populated counties in the state, each with fewer than 13,000 residents, according to 2020 Census data. Tyrrell is the smallest county with a population of 3,245.

Likewise, Rockingham, Craven and Robeson counties have a population more than twice that of Richmond County; Rowan and Randolph are more than three times more populated; and Buncombe has more than six times the number of residents.

Source: Office of the Chief Medical Examiner

Geographically, Jones and Pamlico each border Craven and, along with Tyrrell, are in the coastal plain region of North Carolina; Randolph, Robeson, Richmond, Rockingham and Rowan are between Interstates 95 and 77; and Buncombe is in the mountains.

Among the other counties with a population similar to Richmond, ranging 40,000-45,000:

  • Rate of 23 or lower – Davie, Beaufort, Stokes
  • Rate of 23.1-34.9 – McDowell
  • Rate of 35-49.9 – Pasquotank, Vance, Jackson

(Note: Exact figures were not given other than those counties with the 10 highest rates.)

The only two counties that appear to have no fentanyl-positive deaths are Washington and Avery.

According to provisional data from the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, there were 112 emergency department visits for overdose involving medications or drugs with dependency potential from January to June of this year.

That’s compared to 89 from the same time period in 2022 — a 25.8% increase.

Most of those overdoses listed as being the result of unknown substances or unspecified narcotics.

The number of specifically opioid overdose emergency department visits has increased (during the first six months) by 57.5% from 40 to 63.

(Note: A graphic from NCDHHS shows the 2023 year-to-date figure as 64, but the RO’s calculations using the numbers provided show 63.)

Of those, 44 are listed as being due to unspecified narcotics, while 14 are from commonly prescribed narcotics, four are from heroin and one is because of fentanyl.

During the same six-month period, there were 46 emergency medical services encounters for suspected opioid overdoses — a 43.75% increase from the first half of 2022 when there were 32.


Of those, 16 were treated and transported, while the remaining 30 declined to be taken to a hospital. All five in June refused transport, according to NCDHHS.

All 46 patients reportedly received naloxone — a medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose — and all had an “improved response.”

Records with the Richmond County Drug Endangered Family Task Force show that (at least) 87.5 mg of naloxone was administered in January alone — more than half of that administered (168.5 mg) in 2021 and more than the first three months of 2022 combined (75 mg).

DEFT has not received naloxone data for February-June.

(Disclosure: This writer is a media representative on the task force.)

Earlier this month, the Richmond County Board of Commissioners approved a request from DEFT to use $58,000 from the opioid settlement to create a cache of naloxone to use throughout the year.

Click here to read that story.

The overwhelming majority of overdose patients have been white and between the ages of 25 and 34. Although there is no gender data for the opioid emergency visits, most patients in the other two categories have been men.

In all three charts from the state, May appears to have had the highest number of overdoses so far this year.

The group Steve’s Wings will be hosting its third annual Overdose Awareness Rally and candlelight vigil on Aug. 19.

Those who have lost a loved one to overdose and would like to honor them on a banner should contact Melissa Schoonover at 910-417-8740. The deadline is Friday, July 21.

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Managing Editor William R. Toler is an award-winning writer and photographer with experience in print, television and online media.