Saturday, April 13, 2024

New Hanover County opioid overdoses spike over the holiday season, again

The annual number of overdoses in the Wilmington area has increased dramatically, still, the number of holiday overdose calls to 911 remain disproportionately high.

This Christmas saw a wave of overdoses --- part of annual pattern that as emerged over the last four years. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)
This Christmas saw a wave of overdoses — part of an annual pattern that has emerged over the last four years. (Port City Daily photo / Benjamin Schachtman)

NEW HANOVER COUNTY — A wave of opioid overdoses hit the Wilmington area over the last week, continuing a tragic pattern that has emerged over the last several years.

Related: Opioids in the Cape Fear: ‘One of the most frightening issues of our time’

On Christmas Eve and Christmas, the county received 12 overdose calls; in the three days leading up to the holiday, the county received an additional 10 overdose calls. In less than a week, there were more overdose incidents than in all of 2014 — an indication of the increasing severity of the opioid crisis and the particular dangers of the holiday season.

Starting before Christmas, and through into the New Year, emergency responders can expect higher-than-usual rates of overdose calls.

According to Debora Cottle, who manages the county’s 911 service, “it’s not unexpected to receive an increase in overdose calls over the holidays.”

In recent years, Christmas and Christmas Eve have seen the most overdose calls. On Dec. 24 and 25 of 2016, the county received 16 calls; the following year it was 10, and 12 this year. For comparison, in 2014 the Wilmington Police Department (WPD) reported a total of 10 overdose cases, three years later in 2017, the department responded to over 500.

Even with the dramatic increase in the annual number of overdoses, the Christmas season remains significantly above average.

Authorities see spikes on overdoses for a variety of reasons, including ‘’bad batches,’’ often cut with fentanyl or other high-powered synthetic opioids. Last year, WPD responded to nine overdoses in a single day, leading authorities to warn the community of a suspected bad batch.

Holiday stress

But while some holiday overdoses have been linked to fentanyl, there is a more systemic issue: the added stresses of the season.

While the winter months are sometimes associated with depression and a higher risk of suicide, a Center for Diseases Control study showed suicides actually peak in April into May. But the holiday season does pose other risks factors for those with substance use issues.

During several interviews  last year with staff at the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition, several common factors arose, including the financial stress of the holidays (e.g. the cost of presents, travel, etc.), dealing with family members, and – conversely – the feeling of being estranged from family during a season associated with family gatherings. These factors have a documented impact: according to one study, hosted by the American Psychological Association, a yearly average of 18 percent of people use alcohol for stress release – that percentage jumps to over 30 during the holidays.

There’s also the increase in social alcohol use: everything from year-end office parties to family gatherings to the New Year’s Eve champagne toast. For those with substance use issues, that can be problematic.

No one factor automatically leads to an overdose, but the spike in overdose calls suggest that the combined stresses of the holiday can lead to increased opioid use as well as relapses (which, in some cases, sees individuals using unfamiliar drug sources, a common cause of overdosing).

Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.

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