RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – North Carolina is still tackling the ongoing opioid epidemic. Leaders held a virtual Opioid Misuse and Overdose Prevention Summit Tuesday. The three-day event focuses on prevention and response efforts.

The summit comes as the state and the country as a whole continue to see opioid overdoses rise.

“It is a dangerous, deadly disease. It’s a miserable spot to be,” said Justin Garrity, the rapid response program coordinator at Healing Transitions.

Garrity went through the recovery program at the center himself. Once struggling with substance abuse, he has now finished school, gotten engaged and worked to give back at the recovery center.

The Healing Transition Rapid Response Team directly follows up with people struggling with substance abuse. They make calls, visits and send texts to help people through recovery.

“I just want people to know there is hope,” said Garrity.

He said the program is working with more people than ever. In 2020, they had a 30 percent increase in referrals to the program from EMS.

It’s a similar story across the state. Over 2018 and 2019, the state saw two consecutive years of declines in overdose ER visits. Those numbers rose by 23 percent from 2019 to 2020. While just a few months into the year, 2021’s overdoses are already 20 percent higher than this same time last year.

There was a more than 10 percent increase in cases in March 2021 compared to March 2020. This is the latest month-to-month data available from the state.

“Imagine you’re more isolated. Now you have more trouble with these basic needs of life. Imagine trying to get to a medical appointment when you have to take three buses to get there,” said Garrity.

It’s daily complications like that, created by the pandemic triggering people to relapse or turn to opiates for the first time. An increase in fentanyl-laced drugs and fentanyl availability are also sending more people to the ER more often.

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Overdoses are expected to rise again by the end of 2021. As the pandemic subsides, Garrity says they’ll return to a more hands-on approach and plan to increase resources.

“There’s just going to be more access to substance use help which is going to hopefully quell some of the overdose trends,” he said.

While opioid addiction is widespread, state data show there are hotspots in opioid emergency department visits. Burke, Craven, and Carteret counties have seen some of the higher rates in the state over the last few months.

He says they’ll need more funding for support and prevention programs. After all he says recovery is a lifelong journey.

“I think it’s important not to give up on folks who have had a return to use. There’s hope — I just want to leave that,” said Garrity.