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Drug overdose deaths in US reached record-high of 96,000 during the first 12 months of the pandemic

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A record number of Americans died from drug overdoses during the first 12 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, new figures from the federal government reveal.

Between March 2020 – when most states started issuing lockdowns and stay-at-home orders – and March 2021, there were 96,779 overdose fatalities, according to data released on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS).

This represents a 29.5 percent rise from the roughly 74,679 drug overdose deaths that were recorded over the previous 12 months ending in March 2020.

The spike appears to be mainly driven by an increased use of opioids since last year, and specifically fentanyl, the synthetic opioid 100 times stronger than morphine. 

The pandemic has created the perfect breeding ground for addiction with many turning to opioids to cope with job losses and the deaths of loved ones to the programs being canceled or replaced with telemedicine for those trying to maintain sobriety. 

Between March 2020 and March 2021, the U.S. recorded a record-high 96,779 drug overdose deaths, new CDC data show (above)

Between March 2020 and March 2021, the U.S. recorded a record-high 96,779 drug overdose deaths, new CDC data show (above)

It's a 30.8% increase from the 74,679 overdose fatalities reported over the 12-month period from March 2019 to March 2020. Pictured: Firefighters and paramedics with Anne Arundel County Fire Department transport a patient after responding to a call for a cardiac arrest as a result of a drug overdose in Brooklyn, Maryland, May 2020

It’s a 30.8% increase from the 74,679 overdose fatalities reported over the 12-month period from March 2019 to March 2020. Pictured: Firefighters and paramedics with Anne Arundel County Fire Department transport a patient after responding to a call for a cardiac arrest as a result of a drug overdose in Brooklyn, Maryland, May 2020

The CDC looked at death records received and processed by the NCHS’s National Vital Statistics System.

After overdose deaths declined between November 2017 and March 2019, fatalities began rising again. 

Specifically drug overdose deaths seem to have accelerated during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Increases first began from the 12-month period ending in March 2020 to the 12 months ending in April 2020, rising from 74,676 deaths to 77,017 deaths.

By May 2020, the 12-month period recorded 80,577 deaths, with continued increases through March 2021.  

Just three states, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota, saw their number of overdose deaths fall from March 2020 to March 2021.

Three states saw decreases with South Dakota reporting the largest drop of 16.3% while Vermont saw the biggest increase of 85.1%

Three states saw decreases with South Dakota reporting the largest drop of 16.3% while Vermont saw the biggest increase of 85.1%

Opioids (black line) were the primary driver of overdose deaths followed by synthetic opioids (brown line), excluding methadone

Opioids (black line) were the primary driver of overdose deaths followed by synthetic opioids (brown line), excluding methadone

The biggest drop was seen in South Dakota, with a decline of 16.3 percent.

Meanwhile, every other state, and the District of Columbia, saw the number of deaths rise with Vermont reporting the biggest spike of 85.1 percent over the 12-month period. 

The report found that opioids were the primary driver of overdose deaths followed by synthetic opioids, excluding methadone.

Synthetic opioid deaths, such as due to fentanyl, increased 53 percent from the 12-months ending in March 2020 compared with the 12-months ending in March 2021.

Additionally, methadone, which treats opioid use disorder, saw the fewest number of overdose fatalities over this time period. 

Earlier this year, the CDC released a provisional report showing there were 93,331 U.S. drug overdose deaths recorded in 2020

Earlier this year, the CDC released a provisional report showing there were 93,331 U.S. drug overdose deaths recorded in 2020, a 29.4% jump from 72,151 deaths reported in 2019

‘It is important to remember that behind these devastating numbers are families, friends, and community members who are grieving the loss of loved ones,’ Regina LaBelle, acting director of the Executive Office of the President Office of National Drug Control Policy, told CNN.

She encouraged Congress to pass President Joe Biden’s budget request to help fund programs that treat and prevent substance abuse.

The provisional data come just a few months after the CDC released another provisional report detailing how 93,300 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2020.

That represents a 29.4 percent jump from 72,000 deaths reported in 2019 and is the biggest single-year increase ever.

 Dr Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, lamented the increased and encouraged efforts to drive overdose deaths down. 

‘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,’ she said in a statement.

‘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.’  



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