Provisional data released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed drug overdose deaths reached a record high of 93,331 in 2020, a nearly 30 percent increase.
The death toll jumped from 72,151 deaths in 2019, according to the data.
“That is a stunning number even for those of us who have tracked this issue,” Brendan Saloner, associate professor of health policy and management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told The Wall Street Journal.
“Our public health tools have not kept pace with the urgency of the crisis.”
The surge in drug overdose deaths was driven by the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin.
Deaths from methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses also increased.
The overdose epidemic was intensified by the coronavirus pandemic; addiction experts and treatment providers told The Wall Street Journal it brought on social isolation, trauma and job losses.
“It’s about isolation, about disruption in life, and maybe exacerbation of mental-health symptoms,” said Adam Maslowski, a clinical coordinator for outpatient services in New York.
“A lot of people love Zoom, but there is something about face-to-face contact.”
Kimberly Sue, medical director of the National Harm Reduction Coalition told The Washington Post the pandemic “led to increased substance use across the board, as people have sought to manage stress, isolation, boredom, anxiety, depression, unemployment, relationship and child care issues, and housing instability.”
Addiction specialists, drug counselors and policy experts were not surprised by the numbers, according to the outlet.
“Every one of those people, somebody loved them,” said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University and an addiction and drug policy expert.
“It’s terrifying. It’s the biggest increase in overdose deaths in the history of the United States, it’s the worst overdose crisis in the history of the United States, and we’re not making progress. It’s really overwhelming.”
The Biden administration has committed to addressing the drug epidemic through a plan revealed in April.
The plan said the administration will remove “unnecessary barriers” that prevent the prescription of buprenorphine, which has been proven to help patients with opioid use disorders, and explores emergency provisions used during the pandemic, among other things, according to Axios.
Saloner said the priority needs to be getting help for high-risk people by making it easier for them to access treatment.
“We’ve got to try all this stuff. It’s beyond too late,” he said.
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