More than 100,000 people succumbed to overdose deaths in the United States in the span of a year, a record death toll that underscores the continuing failure of the War on Drugs to keep the nation safe.
During the 12-month period ending April 2021, 100,306 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to provisional data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday. Federal officials point to the coronavirus pandemic and the proliferation of powerful synthetic opioids including fentanyl as major contributors to the spike in overdose deaths over the past two years.
“These are numbers we have never seen before,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told the New York Times. Commenting on the human toll behind the statistics, Volkow noted that a majority of the deaths occurred among people aged 25 to 55.
“They leave behind friends, family and children, if they have children, so there are a lot of downstream consequences,” Dr. Volkow said. “This is a major challenge to our society.”
Overdose Deaths Add to Covid-19’s Toll
During the same time period, approximately 509,000 died from Covid-19 in the United States, according to figures from Johns Hopkins University, while millions were left isolated due to quarantines and business closures. Volkow noted that the pandemic also led to border shutdowns that made powerful synthetic opioids including fentanyl easier to smuggle into the country than naturally produced but less potent and thus more bulky drugs including morphine and heroin.
“What we’re seeing are the effects of these patterns of crisis and the appearance of more dangerous drugs at much lower prices,” Volkow said to CNN. “In a crisis of this magnitude, those already taking drugs may take higher amounts and those in recovery may relapse. It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen and perhaps could have predicted.”
The new data, representing deaths from May 2020 through April 2021, reflects a 28.5 percent increase in the number of fatal overdoses in the United States compared to the same time period one year earlier and the first time deaths have exceeded 100,000 in one year. Synthetic opioids including fentanyl were up 49 percent over the year before, contributing to the vast majority (64 percent) of overdose deaths. Stimulants including methamphetamines were involved in about a quarter of overdose deaths, a jump of 48 percent over the previous year. The data also show more modest increases in the number of overdose deaths caused by natural opioids, cocaine and prescription medications.
Dr. Volkow said that while some drug users intentionally seek out fentanyl, others “may not have wanted to take it. But that is what is being sold, and the risk of overdose is very high.”
The pandemic also decreased the availability and access to treatment for substance use disorders. As the country reopens and life begins to return to normal, overdose deaths are likely to remain high if access to drug treatment and other interventions is not improved, experts says.
“Even if Covid went away tomorrow, we’d still have a problem. What will have an impact is dramatic improvement to access to treatment,” said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, medical director of opioid policy research at the Brandeis University Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
“These are deaths in people with a preventable, treatable condition. The United States continues to fail on both fronts, both on preventing opioid addiction and treating addiction,” he continued, adding that President Joe Biden should act on his campaign promises to address the continuing opioid crisis.
Access to Treatment Saves Lives
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy on Wednesday released model legislation to serve as a guideline for states to pass laws that increase access to naloxone, a life-saving drug that can reverse opioid overdoses. Other medications including buprenorphine can be prescribed to help those with opioid use disorder, but access to the drugs is also often limited. In October, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a plan to combat drug overdoses, including federal support for harm reduction and recovery services and provisions that lessen barriers to substance abuse treatment.
“If we really want to turn the corner, we have to get to a point where treatment for opioid addiction is easier to access than fentanyl, heroin, or prescription opioids are,” Kolodny said.
Beth Connolly, director of the Pew Charitable Trusts substance use prevention and treatment initiative, said that improving access to drug treatment and emergency interventions can help bring down the spike in overdose deaths.
“The evidence is really clear that using medications to treat opioid addiction disorders saves lives,” said Connolly. “As we see more and more evidence that (medication) does save lives, that will hopefully reduce stigmatizing and categorizing in favor of supporting individuals.”