RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — State officials say a record number of North Carolinians died of overdoses in 2021.

The state Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that there were 4,041 overdose deaths that year — up 22 percent from the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

NCDHHS says overdose deaths have climbed 72 percent since 2019, with that rate jumping 40 percent in 2020.

The raw number of overdose deaths is highest among non-Hispanic white people, but as a percentage of the population, Black and African-Americans have been hit hardest — from 2019-21, their overdose death rate went up 139 percent.

“North Carolina’s communities and families are meeting the tragedy of overdose deaths and the opioid crisis head on, every day,” NCDHHS Secretary Kody H. Kinsley said. “With the right treatment and support, recovery is possible, and individuals can go on to live full and productive lives. Our goal is to break the costly cycle of addiction and the smartest investment we can make to do that is expanding Medicaid.”

NCDHHS officials say fentanyl is driving the rise in overdose deaths, with more than 77 percent of them likely involving fentanyl, which is frequently combined with other substances.

The agency says it is expanding access to treatment and prevention, distributing more than 719,000 units of naloxone to help overdose response efforts. It wants mobile medication units to provide methadone and other medicines approved by the FDA to treat opioid use disorders.

Overdose response teams from Healing Transitions in Raleigh reported a steep increase in overdose referrals between 2020-21. Last year saw a slower increase, but an increase nonetheless.

“We’re seeing a lot of pressed pills with fentanyl in it which makes it even more dangerous because you don’t know what you’re getting,” Healing Transitions Director of Recovery Services Justin Garrity said. “It is killing people. It’s killing children, teenagers, no one’s immune to it.”

The FDA is currently reviewing if overdose-reversing medication such as naloxone should be available over the counter.

Garrity said the drug is a lifesaver.

“We think that would be very helpful for folks like parents, like folks that can’t afford it,” Garrity said. “As we saturate a community with naloxone that’s where the studies have shown is the best way to reduce overdose in a Community.”