Gov. Henry McMaster joined a national effort to curb the rising death toll of the opioid epidemic on Monday by declaring a statewide public health emergency.
“According to the statistics, there’s a silent hurricane going on in our state that hits us and it’s getting worse,” McMaster said during a news conference. “It hits us every year, and it’s called the opioid crisis.”
McMaster announced Monday that he has established an “opioid emergency response team,” consisting of state and federal law enforcement agencies, state health regulatory agencies and health care treatment providers, which will hold bi-monthly meetings “to assess outcomes and evaluate new information.”
The governor also issued an executive order for the S.C. Department of Health and Human Services to limit opioid prescriptions for acute and post-operative pain to a maximum of five days for state Medicaid recipients. He has also asked the South Carolina general assembly to pass legislation making the five-day limitation a statewide law for all opioid prescriptions.
The public also will play a vital role in the process of putting an end to the crisis, he said.
“We believe this is the way to conquer this crisis. In fact, it’s the only way,” McMaster said. “Part of this will also rely on getting public participation — churches, synagogues, Rotary clubs, everyone in the medical field. (Everyone) needs to be alert and aware of the overprescription and abuse that this substance causes.
“... And there’s no telling how much it’s costing this state, not just in pain and misery but in actual dollars.”
In South Carolina, opioid-related deaths increased 21 percent from 2014 to 2016. Over the past three years, opioid-related deaths have outpaced homicides and drunken driving deaths by nearly double.
As of Monday, 23 people in Beaufort County have lost their lives to a drug overdose this year — triple the number of such deaths in both 2015 and 2016, and more than the past two years combined.
County records show that 17 of those deaths were related to fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin, or carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that had not been tracked before 2016.
In contrast, there were three deaths last year in the county related to fentanyl or carfentanil.
State Rep. Eric Bedingfield, R-Belton, chairman of the House Opioid Abuse Prevention Study Committee, also spoke during the public announcement. Bedingfield lost his son to an overdose involving fentanyl in March 2016.
“These people who find themselves addicted to this medication and even the illegal drugs are not morally corrupt individuals,” he said. “These are people who have a disease and need help. ... Their brains and their bodies have been modified by the use of this medication and illegal drugs.
“We’ve got to remove the stigma surrounded by addiction, specifically opioid addiction, and let these people understand that we’re here for them.”
McMaster said the state of emergency will not involve any extra money at this point.
“Right now the point is we have all these agencies, all this talent and now we have this idea,” he said. “... Through collaboration and coordination of the public and private sectors, we can have tremendous impact.”