The Slatest

U.S. Drug Overdoses Spiked 30 Percent to a Record High in the Pandemic Year 2020

Containers of pills and prescription drugs are boxed for disposal.
Containers of pills and prescription drugs are boxed for disposal by the Drug Enforcement Administration in April in Los Angeles. Patrick T. Fallon/Getty Images

The number of deaths in the U.S. due to drug overdose spiked by nearly 30 percent last year to a record high, as the pandemic accelerated an already troubling trendline of a rising number of overdoses dating back to fall 2019, just before the virus struck. Since then, the spread of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, has wreaked havoc on American communities that were hit with a wave of trauma in March 2020, as the coronavirus engulfed the country, bringing shutdowns and distancing, economic losses and social isolation. In total, an estimated 93,331 people lost their lives due to a drug overdose last year, representing the largest annual jump in overdoses in at least three decades.

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This latest snapshot of yet another American health crisis comes from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which released its provisional overdose-drug data Wednesday. “This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, and the largest increase since at least 1999,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement. “These data are chilling. The COVID-19 pandemic created a devastating collision of health crises in America.”

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The biggest driver of the increase was the inappropriate use of opioids, particularly fentanyl, which has crept its way into other recreational drugs. The highly addictive substance is often added to other narcotics, such as cocaine, and sometimes taken unknowingly. Fentanyl is now so embedded in the drug supply as a whole that 70 percent of cocaine overdose deaths involved fentanyl, as did half of the methamphetamine overdose fatalities.

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Overall opioid overdose deaths rose by nearly 37 percent in 2020 and synthetic opioid-specific deaths, most of which were fentanyl-related, increased by more that 54 percent compared with 2019. Of the 93,331 overdose deaths in the pandemic year of 2020, 57,550 were the consequence of synthetic opioid use. “That is a stunning number even for those of us who have tracked this issue,” said Brendan Saloner, associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told the Wall Street Journal. “Our public health tools have not kept pace with the urgency of the crisis.”

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