McMaster Declares Public Health Emergency Over Opioid Epidemic

Gov. Henry McMaster declared the opioid crisis a public health emergency Monday in his latest push to help combat the growing problem in South Carolina.

McMaster called the epidemic a “silent hurricane” from the state Emergency Operations Center surrounded by Cabinet secretaries and others who are now part of an emergency response team to address the problem.

Heroin deaths jumped 67 percent from 2014 to 2016 and have not peaked yet, officials said.  A major factor in the death increases is the prevalence of the powerful, synthetic opioid called fentanyl.

McMaster’s executive order also included limiting the amount of powerful opioid painkillers Medicare and state employees can receive to five days after an operation. Last year, 684 deaths were related to prescription drug overdoses.

“That is the time during which we understand, from medical and scientific evidence, is when the addiction can occur—it’s the first five days,” McMaster said. “Some people walk out of the doctor’s office with 60 or 90 pills in one prescription and they don’t need that many. They’re carrying around a potential addiction right there for somebody, whether it’s a child who goes into the medicine cabinet or somebody who steals those pills.”

Sara Goldsby, director of the S.C. Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services, said the limits will prevent future addiction since a high amount of drug diversion occurs from those large prescriptions. Data shows many who become addicted to opioid painkillers migrate to cheaper and easier to find heroin, fueling overdoses and use of the opioid antidote naloxone.

“We know that we haven’t reached the peak of the opioid crisis, not only in our nation but in South Carolina,” Goldsby said. “In the last year we’ve seen the sharpest ever spike related to fentanyl and other synthetic related opioids.”

The S.C. Dept. of Health and Human Services will develop the five-day prescription limitation policy for acute and post-operative pain management on or before March 1. There will be clinical exemptions for conditions such as chronic pain, cancer pain and palliative care.

Earlier this year the South Carolina General Assembly passed several bipartisan bills addressing the opioid crisis, specifically prescription drugs, that McMaster signed into law. One required mandatory reporting to the Department of Health and Environmental Control’s prescription drug monitoring program any opioid prescription. DHEC’s director David Wilson said the agency is seeing the benefits.

“This past June we had a record number of prescribers accessing our prescription monitoring program—almost 1.4 million,” Wilson said. “It’s a huge increase and we have definitely seen a benefit of that law going into effect.”

McMaster signed all the opioid legislation into law and also held a Opioid Summit in early September that brought together health professionals and others to forge greater partnerships in the ongoing fight.

Last year, 616 people died from opioid-related overdoses and was the third year in a row that number outpaced homicide and drunk driving deaths by nearly double.

Statewide monitoring data found the top 10 counties with 25 or more fatal opioid overdoses were: Horry, Charleston, Greenville, Richland, York, Spartanburg, Lexington, Pickens, Georgetown and Berkeley.