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Pandemic May Be Accelerating Drug Overdose Problems, CDC Warns

Opioid overdoses reached a record high this year, as the country faced dire conditions amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to the findings of a new government study highlighting the accelerating drug abuse and overdose problems in the United States.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) published a press release on December 17, highlighting the increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States.

Although substantial efforts have been made in recent years to combat the opioid abuse epidemic that has plagued the U.S. in recent years, CDC researchers report drug overdose deaths increased to record numbers this spring, largely driven by abuse of narcotic painkillers during “stay home” orders.

More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. during the 12 months ending in May 2020, which is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period in the United States.

A 2018 CDC report indicated opioids accounted for nearly 70% of all overdose deaths in the United States. According to the new data, that number has increased.

Opioid overdose deaths increased 38% from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 to 12 months leading up to May 2020. This increase was primarily driven by the use of the powerful narcotic painkiller, fentanyl, which is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Recently, fentanyl was named the most dangerous drug in the U.S. by the CDC, due to its involvement in numerous overdose deaths.

The new study indicates 37 of 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in overdose deaths. Eighteen of those jurisdictions reported opioid overdoses increased by at least 50%, with 10 western states reporting opioid-related overdose deaths increased by 98%.

The opioid crisis has largely been driven on the over-promotion of the powerful painkillers and over-prescribing by doctors, who are often rewarded by drug companies to prescribe the dangerous drugs. Nearly half of all patients who are prescribed opioid painkillers do not need them for pain relief.

Recently, Johnson & Johnson settled a lawsuit agreeing to pay $20 million for their role in creating the opioid abuse epidemic.

In addition to opioids, the CDC reports overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 26.5% and overdoses involving methamphetamine increased by 35%.

Cocaine overdose deaths were linked to co-use with opioids or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin. The number of deaths involving methamphetamine now exceeds the number of cocaine-involved deaths.

The CDC said the findings of the study highlights the need for essential services to remain accessible for people most at risk of overdose and the need to expand prevention and response activities, especially during the coronavirus pandemic.

Many people who are at risk of abusing or overdosing on narcotic painkillers face an increased risk during the pandemic. Lockdowns and isolation can lead to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

The CDC recommends the public learn the risks of opioids and learn about naloxone, the overdose reversal drug, and how to use it. Additionally, reaching out to those who are struggling during the pandemic or struggling with substance abuse issues to help them find care and treatment can help avoid overdose deaths.

The CDC also issued a health advisory to medical and public health professionals, first responders, harm reduction organizations and community partners offering these recommendations:

  • Expand distribution and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education.
  • Expand awareness about and access to and availability of treatment for substance use disorders.
  • Intervene early with individuals at high risk for overdose.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

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