COLUMBIA, SC (WSPA) — Provisional data from the federal government shows more than 1,700 South Carolinians died of a drug overdose in 2020.

This is a 52% increase compared to 2019. More than 1,100 South Carolinians died of a drug overdose that year. CDC data shows the increase in 2020 was driven by illegal synthetic opioids.

Officials from the South Carolina Department of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse Services (DAODAS) knew the numbers from 2020 were going to be difficult to look at. They ramped up outreach efforts last year and used targeted approaches to reach people in need.

Director Sara Goldsby said, “It hurts our hearts…I don’t think we expected it to be a 50% increase over 2019. It’s just such a sharp incline.”

The CDC said nationally deaths jumped 29%, more than 93,000 died of a drug overdose in 2020. Goldsby said here in South Carolina isolation from the COVID-19 pandemic helped drive the increase.

“A lot of negative feelings were occurring in people’s lives associated with the pandemic. People often turn to drugs and alcohol to alleviate negative feelings,” Goldsby said. She also added there was an increase in alcohol use and drug use in South Carolina last year.

In addition to the pandemic, Goldsby said the increased potency of illicit drugs like fentanyl and fentanyl analogues also drove this increase. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, these drugs could be 50-100 times more potent than morphine. “There’s an extremely dangerous drug supply on our streets right now,” Goldsby said.

Goldsby said so far in 2021 they are still seeing elevated numbers of suspected overdoses in South Carolina.

She said their goal at DAODAS in 2021 is to turn things around.

Before the pandemic, progress was made in South Carolina. She said the yearly increase in drug overdose deaths was shrinking. From 2018 to 2019, there was a 3% increase in deaths. Goldsby said this setback is driving them to work even harder and find innovative solutions to the problem.

She said right now there are more than 300,000 South Carolinians in recovery for substance use disorder. For more information on support groups or treatment services click or tap here.