Opioid overdoses in Lee County more than doubled last month, according to Greg Graves, an Emergency Medical Services supervisor and member of the Sanford opioid abuse epidemic commission.

The number of overdoses rose from 14 in February to 32 in March, with two deaths, he said. Graves added that overdoses will likely continue to rise, citing a recent 24-hour shift in which he saw four overdoses in a single day.

One reason for the uptick could be the recent release of $1,400 federal stimulus checks, Graves said. The surge in overdoses happened mostly in the days following the release of the money, he said, although there is no direct evidence of causation.

Some experts have attributed the rise in overdoses throughout 2020 and into early 2021 to the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in isolation, homelessness and job loss.

Across the United States, there were more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths from May 2019 to May 2020, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In North Carolina, the number of emergency department visits due to opioid overdose rose from 6,705 in 2019 to 8,252 in 2020, a 23% increase.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a news release.

“As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

Another major factor contributing to the increase is the increased availability of fentanyl, which “appear(s) to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths,” the CDC news release stated.

Marshall McNeill, a narcotics agent with the Sanford Police Department, said the city has seen that influx in action, with fentanyl coming in from Atlanta. The synthetic, highly potent drug is often added to heroin or pressed into pills that look like Xanax, McNeill said.

Equipping first responders with Narcan, a drug that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses, has helped mitigate the increase in drug use, Graves said.

“First responders are getting out there quickly and administering Narcan before we even get there, which has been great,” he said. “The police department, sheriff’s department and the fire departments, they’ve been a great help. There’s three of our (EMS) trucks on the road, there’s a lot more of them everywhere else.”

The distribution of harm reduction kits to family members has also helped, according to commission members. These kits include Narcan and information about how to spot an overdose, as well as other resources that can help family members reach out to their loved ones who may be using opioids.

“It’s good to hear that families and bystanders are administering Narcan,” said commission Chairwoman Becky Whitaker. “I think that’s a great reason to keep pushing for harm reduction practices.”

In coming weeks, the commission plans to form four subcommittees to help address the opioid epidemic, Whitaker said.

There will be a committee for resource development, to find funding for programs that could fill gaps in services; education and awareness, to teach community members about the epidemic; community outreach and engagement, to ensure the commission is hearing from opioid users and other stakeholders about how they can help; and law enforcement and government relations, to help the commission connect to people who can enact policy changes.

One of the goals of the commission is to launch an educational campaign, Whitaker said. Commission members have discussed erecting a billboard, airing public service announcements and scheduling community events that could teach family members and others how to reach out to opioid users.

“I’m excited about the direction of these (committees) once they take shape,” Whitaker said.