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Overdose deaths have surged during the pandemic, CDC says

Members of Maine's recovery community raised black balloons into the sky to honor those who have died due to accidental overdoses. 2020 was the deadliest year for overdoses in Maine.
Members of Maine's recovery community raised black balloons into the sky to honor those who have died due to accidental overdoses. 2020 was the deadliest year for overdoses in Maine.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

WASHINGTON — More than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over the 12-month period that ended in September, according to preliminary federal data, eclipsing the toll from any year since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s.

The surge represents an increasingly urgent public health crisis, one that has drawn less attention and fewer resources while the nation has battled the coronavirus pandemic.

Deaths from overdoses started rising again in the months leading up to the coronavirus pandemic — after dropping slightly in 2018 for the first time in decades — and it is hard to gauge just how closely the two phenomena are linked. But the pandemic unquestionably exacerbated the trend, which grew much worse last spring: The biggest jump in overdose deaths took place in April and May, when fear and stress were rampant, job losses were multiplying and the strictest lockdown measures were in effect.

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Many treatment programs closed during that time, at least temporarily, and “drop-in centers” that provide support, clean syringes and naloxone, the lifesaving medication that reverses overdoses, cut back services that in many cases have yet to be fully restored.

The preliminary data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show a 29% rise in overdose deaths from October 2019 through September 2020 — the most recent data available — compared with the previous 12-month period. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were the primary drivers, although many fatal overdoses have also involved stimulant drugs, particularly methamphetamine.

Brendan Saloner, an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health who studies access to addiction treatment, said surveys that he and a colleague, Susan Sherman, conducted of drug users and people in treatment in 11 states during the pandemic found that many had used drugs more often during that time — and used them alone more often, likely because of lockdowns and social distancing. Well over half the participants also said the drugs they used had been cut or mixed more than usual, another red flag.

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“The data points corroborate something I believe, which is that people who were already using drugs started using in ways that were higher risk — especially using alone and from a less reliable supply,” Saloner said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.