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Federal researchers indicate the number of drug overdose deaths rose by close to 30% in 2020, surpassing the highest number ever recorded in the United States.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released provisional data on July 14, indicating more than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. in 2020. The CDC warns the recent data shows a dangerous and continuing trend of drug overdose deaths, in part due to issues stemming from pandemic lockdowns, which made getting treatment difficult, and from dealers selling illegal drugs laced with powerful synthetic opioids.
Although health officials have been dealing with the opioid abuse epidemic in the United States for years, the new data shows opioids were involved in 74.7% of overdose deaths, accounting for to 69,710 deaths in 2020, up from 50,963 in 2019. Overall, the CDC reports there were 93,331 overdose deaths in the 12 months ended in December 2020, compared with an estimated 72,151 deaths in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic stopped many street-level outreach programs, prevented many people from seeing their doctors, and it reduced access to programs which offer needle exchange, opioid substitution therapy, or safe injection sites where observers could deploy the overdose antidote Narcan, leaving many addicts to die.
Also during the pandemic, stay-at-home orders left drug users unable to attend support group meetings in person or visit their therapists for live one-on-one sessions. Isolation can be tied with issues of anxiety and depression which the pandemic lockdowns contributed to with stay-at-home orders, experts warn.
While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the COVID-19 outbreak, the latest data show a stark acceleration during the pandemic. However, even as pandemic lockdowns begin to end, the crisis with drug overdose deaths continues.
The drugs themselves are getting more deadly for drug addicts. Cocaine and methamphetamine are being mixed with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, to boost their effects, health regulators warn.
In 2017, fentanyl was linked to more than 50% of opioid deaths, and in 2018, the CDC categorized fentanyl as the most dangerous drug in the country. Federal authorities warn that if a drug is being sold online or via social media it is most likely a counterfeit. This is the main way traffickers are getting fentanyl into the hands of users.
The data showed the highest increase of overdose deaths in Vermont, up 57.6%; followed by Kentucky, up 54%; South Carolina, up 52%; West Virginia, up nearly 50%; and California, up 46%.
CDC researchers called for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to push for more restrictions on synthetic opioids and recommended the agency do more to control the over-prescribing of opioids.
Researchers are not expecting a drop in overdose deaths for 2021, but rather an increase despite the United States slowly ending the current pandemic lockdowns.