Drug overdose deaths up during the COVID-19 pandemic

The unintended consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic mitigation efforts, like closing businesses, stay-at-home order and other forms of lockdowns, made by governments and public health officials are mounting.

Earlier this week, new research by public health experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) demonstrated that dangerous alcohol consumption in the form of binge drinking is up and is linked to stay-at-home orders.

Image by RenoBeranger from Pixabay

Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is reporting an accelerated increase in drug overdose deaths during the pandemic.

Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.

“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.”

Synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths, increasing 38.4 percent from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 compared with the 12-month period leading up to May 2020. During this time period:

  • 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths.
  • 18 of these jurisdictions reported increases greater than 50 percent.
  • 10 western states reported over a 98 percent increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths.

Overdose deaths involving cocaine also increased by 26.5 percent. Based upon earlier research, these deaths are likely linked to co-use or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased by 34.8 percent. The number of deaths involving psychostimulants now exceeds the number of cocaine-involved deaths.

“The increase in overdose deaths is concerning.” said Deb Houry, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “CDC’s Injury Center continues to help and support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis. Our priority is to do everything we can to equip people on the ground to save lives in their communities.”


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