As the pandemic raged across the US last year, drug overdoses took a savage turn for the worse, killing more than 93,000 people, according to preliminary CDC estimates released Wednesday.
The 29.4% increase is an alarming jump from 2019, which also set a record after 71,000 people died from drug overdoses, according to CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
“These numbers are just devastating,” Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told BuzzFeed News. “These people cannot be ignored, despite the crisis of COVID.”
The spike in deaths was driven by the increased presence of the dangerous opioid fentanyl into the illicit drug market in the US, along with increased isolation among people who use drugs and overwhelmed public health agencies during the pandemic. The increase is only the latest in a long-running epidemic of overdose deaths steadily rising over the last half-century, with more than half a million people dying as a result of drug overdoses in the last decade alone.
“We are in an enduring crisis that is still going on. We are still right in the middle of it,” said Chelsea Shover, an epidemiologist at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “These are all preventable deaths. This is really a tragedy.”
While fentanyl is now linked to 3 out of 5 overdose deaths nationwide, the preliminary statistics suggest deaths from methamphetamine, cocaine, and prescription pain pills also increased in the last year. That likely reflects their contamination with fentanyl, and increasing use of multiple drugs together, said Volkow. As little as 2 milligrams of fentanyl can be a lethal dose; one survey conducted by the Drug Enforcement Administration reported that 26% of counterfeit pain pills contained that dosage or higher.
Shover’s work has shown that fentanyl moved into more Western states in the US during the pandemic, spreading out from the East Coast and parts of Appalachia where it was already common in the illicit drug supply. She argued that naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses, needs to become both more common and available in larger doses to deal with the increasing shares of illicit fentanyl sold on the street.
Volkow said she is optimistic that drug overdose deaths will not increase in 2021 by the same percentage as last year, but expects the numbers will still be high.
“I can see where COVID cases are happening on a daily basis now,” Volkow said. “We need to be doing the same things to see where overdoses are happening.”