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U.S. drug overdose deaths spiked in 2020, new CDC data shows

·Senior Editor
·4 min read

The coronavirus pandemic took a major toll on the mental health of Americans, especially those struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), leading to an increase in fatal overdoes.

According to the latest data from the CDC, drug overdose deaths increased by 29.6% for the 12-month period ending December 2020. While each state varied in the number of fatalities, only two states saw a decrease in deaths: South Dakota and New Hampshire.

Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), noted that it’s the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period and the largest increase since at least 1999.

“These data are chilling,” Volkow told Yahoo Finance. “The COVID-19 pandemic created a devastating collision of health crises in America.”

Opioids were the leading cause of drug overdose deaths. In the 12-month period ending in December 2020, 68,821 individuals died as a result of the drug.

Synthetic opioids were also a main driver, accounting for 56,688 deaths in that same period. These include drugs like fentanyl, a drug that’s 50 times stronger than heroin.

“These numbers are absolutely heartbreaking — each of these people was a beloved family member, friend, and neighbor,” Sheila Vakharia, deputy director at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Yahoo Finance. “And each of their lives mattered and was worth saving, yet our policies continue to fail people like them every day. Their deaths were preventable.”

A year of despair

Since the pandemic went into full force back in March 2020, it’s become increasingly clear how much of an emotional toll that it had on Americans.

The forced isolation and social distancing, record job losses, and millions of cases created a mental health crisis unlike ever seen before.

“This has been an incredibly uncertain and stressful time for many people, and we are seeing an increase in drug consumption, difficulty in accessing life-saving treatments for substance use disorders, and a tragic rise in overdose deaths,” Volkow said.

Though the number of cases has drastically decreased compared to last year thanks to the widespread distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, there was still a significant amount of damage done in that time.

NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 19:  Carlos, a patient at a Brooklyn methadone clinic for those addicted to heroin, pauses on June 19, 2017 in New York City. He and his girlfriend Danielle have been heroin free for two weeks and plan on getting married. Newly released data shows that over 1,370 New Yorkers died from overdoses in 2016, the majority of those deaths involved opioids. According to the Deputy Attorney General, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Carlos, a patient at a Brooklyn methadone clinic for those addicted to heroin, pauses on June 19, 2017 in New York City. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

An October 2020 survey from TransUnion Healthcare found nearly six in 10 patients had deferred non-coronavirus-related medical care, which included mental health care and addiction treatment, over the previous six months.

And a CDC survey from June 2020 found that 40.9% of Americans reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, with 13.3% of respondents having started or increased substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.

“The COVID-19 pandemic clearly exacerbated the many conditions that have fueled our overdose crisis for over 20 years now, and this moment calls for leadership and courage to actually promote science-based public health measures that work,” Vakharia said, citing measures like expanding medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and syringe service programs.

MAT is defined by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as "the use of medications, in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies, to provide a 'whole-patient' approach to the treatment of substance use disorders."

BOSTON, MA - MARCH 31: Outreach specialist Rachel Bolton displays a dose of NARCAN outside the Access Drug User Health Program drop in center in Cambridge, MA  on March 31, 2020. She and site coordinator Josh Ledesma use bicycles to deliver safe injection supplies, NARCAN® (naloxone) and hygiene kits to people with addiction. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Outreach specialist Rachel Bolton displays a dose of NARCAN outside the Access Drug User Health Program drop in center in Cambridge, MA on March 31, 2020. (Photo by Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A study from the Journal of American Medical Association (JAMA) that analyzed a cohort of 100,000 patients over 5 years found that MAT therapy could be cost effective in addition to lowering the number of overdose deaths.

Unfortunately, there are still barriers for medical providers trying to prescribe MAT for those struggling with SUD. That needs to change, according to Volkow.

“As we continue to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, we must prioritize making treatment options more widely available to people with substance use disorders,” she said.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra recently issued guidelines offering waivers for prescribers, though it is still limited. And in the meantime, on Tuesday, the president nominated Rahul Gupta, a former West Virginia health official, as the new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) after months of speculation.

“It’s time to get to work,” Vakharia stressed.

Adriana Belmonte is a reporter and editor covering politics and health care policy for Yahoo Finance. You can follow her on Twitter @adrianambells and reach her at adriana@yahoofinance.com.

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