Fact check: In 'recent years,' have more North Carolinians died from opioid overdoses or COVID-19?

Posted August 5, 2021 5:42 p.m. EDT
Updated August 5, 2021 6:00 p.m. EDT

North Carolina’s top prosecutor wants his colleagues to remember that people are still struggling with drug addiction and that the pandemic has exacerbated the opioid crisis.

However, his recent comparison of COVID-19 deaths and opioid-related deaths caught our attention.

Attorney General Josh Stein was addressing North Carolina’s Council of State — which includes the governor, lieutenant governor, state treasurer and other department heads — when he made this statement:

“The opioid epidemic has become a greater crisis since the pandemic. The media doesn’t cover it as much because obviously the pandemic is paramount. But more people have died of an opioid overdose in North Carolina in recent years than have died of COVID. The number of people who have died of an opioid overdose has dramatically increased over the last year,” Stein said.

Opioids are drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Examples include heroin, morphine, the synthetic opioid known as fentanyl, and prescriptions such as OxyContin and Vicodin.

Is it true that more people have died of an opioid overdose in North Carolina in recent years than have died from the coronavirus?

Only if we apply the word “recent” very liberally.

What records show

On Aug. 3, the day of Stein’s statement, the state Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) had recorded 13,679 total COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina since the start of the pandemic in 2020.

When we asked Stein’s office about his comparison, spokesperson Nazneen Ahmed cited a DHHS estimate that 16,500 North Carolinians unintentionally overdosed and died over 19 years — between 2000 and 2019.

However, it’s difficult to determine exactly how many deaths there have been in “recent” years. The state’s health department doesn’t have confirmed opioid deaths for 2020, only provisional data. Here are the year-by-year unintentional opioid overdose deaths documented by DHHS:

2020: 2,322

2019: 1,808

2018: 1,718

2017: 1,884

2016: 1,407

2015: 1,057

2014: 853

2013: 721

2012: 731

2011: 713

2010: 648

In total, opioid deaths hit 13,862 over that 11-year span. To put that in perspective, North Carolina recorded 6,748 COVID-19 deaths just in 2020 — nearly three times as many deaths as from opioid overdoses in the same one-year period.

DHHS records do show the number of opioid overdoses — fatal and nonfatal — have increased during the pandemic.

DHHS spokeswoman Kelly Haight said the state records show emergency department visits for overdoses have increased 20% since the early months of the pandemic in 2020. “While we likely will not have complete death data until later this fall, the provisional data that we do share for 2020 and 2021 show this increase as well,” she said.

For the sake of this fact-check, though, it’s important to point out that it’s unlikely that opioid deaths exceed COVID-19 deaths in North Carolina unless you combine more than 10 years of confirmed death figures.

A chart on the CDC’s website shows slightly higher overdose death figures for North Carolina. However, as Haight pointed out, the CDC tracks deaths caused by opioids as well as other substances.

Our ruling

PolitiFact: Mostly False

Stein said “More people have died of an opioid overdose in North Carolina in recent years than have died of COVID.”

Excluding 2021, it appears as if we’d need to combine more than 10 years of opioid fatality data to reach the same number of coronavirus deaths North Carolina has counted since the start of the pandemic.

Preliminary opioid death numbers from 2021 aren’t available and officials haven’t finished confirming the total for 2020, so it’s possible that they’ll push the recent totals higher than expected.

But we feel like it’s a stretch for Stein to compare North Carolina’s opioid deaths over the last 11 years to COVID deaths in North Carolina, which total more than 13,700 over 18 months. We rate his statement Mostly False.

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