In the very section of Edgefield County that has suffered most from the opioid epidemic, the county sheriff’s department, EMS and Merriwether Fire; in conjunction with the county’s designated alcohol and drug abuse treatment provider and a faith-based nonprofit, hosted a townhall meeting about the “hidden crisis” that has not discriminated between the affluent and the struggling.
“I can tell you it’s from one end of our community to the other. We’ve been to a $500 trailer that had it, and I’ve been to a $2 million home in Edgefield County that had it,” Edgefield County Sheriff Jody Rowland said. “It’s in every community, it’s in every family. If you think you’re immune, you’re not.”
Data collected from Edgefield County EMS show that in 2022, the county recorded 60 cases of suspected overdose. For the first four months of this year, the county has recorded 23 cases of overdose, including one fatality.
Allen Easler told Post and Courier North Augusta that the Sweetwater-Merriwether area is where most drug overdoses occur.
Easler is a prevention specialist at Cornerstone, Edgefield County’s designated outpatient treatment provider for alcohol and drug abuse. For Easler, who’s been with Cornerstone 22 years – long before the opioid epidemic really got started in the mid-2010s – opioids, and especially the synthetic opioid fentanyl, are “just another example” of a nationwide drug abuse problem.
For those at Sweetwater Community Center on Thursday, fentanyl is a completely different animal than the come-and-go waves of meth, heroin and cocaine.
For one, it’s easily disguised.
“You can’t tell a SweeTart from a fentanyl tablet now. You can’t tell sidewalk chalk from fentanyl anymore,” Rowland said.
The drug is being mixed into other drugs, including marijuana. And “street pharmacists” are inconsistent: “I can test 10 tablets and no two will be alike,” Rowland said. “The user is just playing Russian roulette.”
To get an idea of how little fentanyl is needed for a lethal dose, Rowland said that just 12 grains of salt is about what it looks like.
Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency.
“Without any intervention, it is fatal. Nine times out of 10, they don’t just wake up,” said Garrett Lynn, EMS director for Edgefield County. “These people are hanging on the verge of death. To see someone’s face turn completely blue because they haven't been breathing – it’s kind of an eerie feeling.”
“These types of scenes can be very violent; they can be hostile," he added. “Usually, crime is associated with them. And what I've seen with EMS over the past couple of years – they're grateful for our help when we get there but once the problem has been resolved they want us out of there, they want us gone.”
Rowland said the drug business in Edgefield County is "a vicious cycle."
“It’s a property crime that works into narcotics," he said. "If you arrest property crimes aggressively, you will make narcotics arrests; if you make narcotics arrests aggressively – we recover stolen property all the time.”
But there’s also “shame and stigma” associated with overdose and addiction of any kind.
Mitch Prosser, president of the faith-based Palmetto Family Council, said “addiction thrives in isolation. The biggest issue that people face is, because of the shame and stigma of this, they begin to isolate, withdraw and back away […] what we find is, when they isolate themselves, it’s a downward spiral of turmoil they find themselves in, and it’s a bigger struggle to get out of the further they get into it.”
Those on the support services end of things – people like Prosser and Cornerstone’s Easler – say that patience and understanding of those going through addiction is needed to help move a person toward recovery.
“Most of the people who get stuck in addiction, they want to be made whole. They’re trying to fill a void,” said Prosser, noting those in addiction are not taking a drug to end their lives.
Total overdose deaths in the state of South Carolina for 2021 were 2,168 or a 25% increase over 2020, according to data published by South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Of those deaths, just 71 were considered to be intentional, a number that has remained static over the past decade even as the total number of overdose deaths has risen dramatically.
The idea of having patience for those in addiction has, in one way, taken hold: the availability of the often-saving Narcan is now widespread.
It used to be that only doctors, nurses and paramedics had access to Narcan, an antagonist drug that temporarily blocks the effects of another drug, buying time for paramedics to get to the scene of an overdose.
Now, authorized providers like Cornerstone (and its counterparts in other South Carolina counties), are able to give it away, no questions asked.
Lynn, with Edgefield County EMS, said the availability of Narcan is a sign of where things are headed in the opioid epidemic. “This used to be kind of an isolated thing. Now, if you get an opioid prescription, (doctors) have to write you a Narcan prescription to go with it. That used to be unheard of.”
Lynn said it also used to be enough for an EMS van to stock just 2 milligrams of Narcan and that this once-standard dose would be enough for any overdose EMS responded to. “Now, it takes 4, 8, 10, 12mg – and sometimes still these people are not waking up. That just tells you how potent that stuff is.”
Across the board, from law enforcement and EMS to support services and the faith community, those in Sweetwater on Thursday said the opioid epidemic requires a constant spread of information about the dangers of fentanyl and other substances.
“What I know about fentanyl is, if it doesn't get you the first time, if it doesn't get you the second or third time, it will catch up to you,” said Lynn.
It also requires a joint response from the community – its citizens, its churches, its counselors. Said Rowland, “I can do the enforcement part, but I can’t fix the soul.”