US drug overdoses soar to record number in 2020, fueled by pandemic

More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in the US last year, a record number that reflects a 30% rise from 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In new provisional data released on Wednesday, health officials found that the rise in fatal overdoses was mostly triggered by pandemic-related stressors, treatment inaccessibility and the proliferation of fentanyl, a deadly synthetic opioid.

Using the CDC’s number of 375,00 Covid-related deaths in the past year, fatal overdoses accounted for one-quarter as many deaths as Covid-19. The 93,331 fatal overdoses in the past year mark a sharp increase from the 72,151 deaths in 2019, reflecting the steepest rise in at least three decades. 69,710 deaths in 2020 alone were from opioids.

Before 2016, more Americans died annually from heroin overdoses than from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. However, with fentanyl becoming increasingly mixed into other illegal drugs such as heroin and cocaine, often without the user’s knowledge, the number of fatal overdoses from synthetic opioids has increased dramatically.

In the past year, fentanyl was involved in over 60% of the overdose deaths.

Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than morphine and heroin, and is often sold illegally for its heroin-like effects including euphoria. According to the CDC, it also takes very little to produce a high with fentanyl, thus making it a much cheaper option for drug dealers and users.

Deaths from methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses also increased significantly, according to the CDC.

As fatal overdoses soar, communities of color have witnessed a significant increase in drug-overdose deaths. In a 2019 report from the Minnesota department of health, African Americans were two times more likely to die of drug overdoses than white people, while Native Americans were seven times more likely to die of drug overdoses than white people. Overall, opioids are the leading cause of fatal overdoses among whites, African Americans and Native Americans.

Ten states are expected to have at least a 40% jump in overdose deaths from the previous year: Virginia, Louisiana, California, Arkansas, Nebraska, South Carolina, Kentucky, Vermont, West Virginia and Tennessee.

Earlier this month, 15 states signed on to a settlement with Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma in efforts to reorganize and combat the opioid crisis. In June, Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay $230m to settle an opioid lawsuit brought by New York state.

As of 2019, more than 3,000 states, local governments and Native American tribes had demanded $26.4bn from major pharmaceutical companies to pay for the damage caused by the opioid crisis. Many accuse the companies of pushing opioids to be prescribed and distributed beyond their medical necessity, thereby creating widespread addiction and increasing the prevalence of street opioid drug abuse.

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