Pandemic & Epidemic Create Perfect Storm Surge in Overdose Deaths
A combination of covid-related factors and the continuing spread of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply led to a dramatic surge in the number of drug overdose deaths in 2020. The figure below shows how the number of overdose deaths changed in 2020 relative to 2019, with orange/brown indicating an increase while light blue indicates a decrease. Apart from Vermont and South Dakota, every state in the US (as well as the District of Columbia) showed substantial increases in overdose deaths. Overall, the government projects a 29% increase in overdose deaths relative to 2019, the largest annual increase since the current epidemic began in the late 1990s.
United States Projected 29.4% increase in overdose deaths from 2019
New York State Projected 32.3% increase in overdose deaths from 2019
The surge in overdose deaths is being driven largely by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids. (Deaths attributable to heroin actually decreased slightly from 2019, continuing a recent trend). The much higher potency of fentanyl has led experienced drug users to seek it out while its low cost of production has led dealers to mix it into other drugs, including methamphetamine and cocaine, where opioid-naïve users would be particularly susceptible to overdose.
“This is the largest annual increase since the epidemic began in the late 1990s.”
Of course, the covid pandemic played a significant role in overdose surge as well. The forced isolation due to suspension of group support sessions and closures of rehabilitation facilities eroded much of the support framework essential to preventing relapse for those in treatment. It also led to more people taking drugs alone, meaning no one was present to administer naloxone or call EMS in the event of an overdose. Reduced access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) drugs like methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone further increased death totals.
As the country reopens, it will be essential to restore and expand access to MAT and other forms of therapy while reducing the prevalence of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.
Full statistics from the National Center of Health Services is listed below.