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Drug overdose deaths spiked at onset of COVID-19 pandemic

Posted at 6:36 PM, Dec 17, 2020

There was a “concerning” increase in the number of drug overdoses in the US in from March through May 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Thursday.

The data were part of an annual analysis of drug overdoses in the US. The data went from June 2019 through May 2020. The CDC noted that pre-pandemic drug overdoses were up in the month preceding the pandemic, but increased further when much of the US economy closed to stop the spread of the virus in March.

The CDC previously estimated that 19,416 Americans died from drug overdoses from January through March 2020, which was up nearly 3,000 deaths. Approximately 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12-months ending in May 2020, the CDC reported. For the year ending in May, there were nearly 10,000 additional drug overdose deaths compared to the previous year.

The CDC said that synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl likely drove the increase. The American Medical Association says that there has been a 37% drop in prescriptions of opioids since 2014.

“The increase in overdose deaths is concerning.” said Deb Houry, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “CDC’s Injury Center continues to help and support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis. Our priority is to do everything we can to equip people on the ground to save lives in their communities.”

The CDC issued a set of recommendations to help combat drug overdoses:

  • Expand distribution and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education.
  • Expand awareness about and access to and availability of treatment for substance use disorders.
  • Intervene early with individuals at highest risk for overdose.
  • Improve detection of overdose outbreaks to facilitate more effective response.

The CDC added that “Measures taken at the national, state, and local level to address the COVID-19 pandemic may have unintended consequences for substance use and overdose, but CDC is working with states, territories, tribes, cities, and counties across the country to continue drug overdose surveillance and prevention efforts.”

During the same timeframe of March through May 2020, more than 67,000 Americans died from the coronavirus despite intense mitigation efforts, according to Johns Hopkins University data. The death tolls from the coronavirus and drug overdoses show the challenge public health officials face in keeping the country healthy amid a pandemic.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”