Apr 14, 2021 - Health

Drug overdose deaths surged during coronavirus pandemic

Provisional U.S. drug overdose deaths
Data: CDC; Chart: Danielle Alberti/Axios

New data shows that more Americans died of drug overdoses in the year leading to September 2020 than any 12-month period since the opioid epidemic began.

Why it matters: The stubborn increase of such "deaths of despair" shows that the opioid epidemic still has room to grow and that some of the social distancing steps we took to rein in the pandemic may have brought deadly side effects.

By the numbers: More than 87,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in the 12 months leading to September 2020, according to preliminary federal data released this week.

  • That represents a 29% increase in overdose deaths for the months between October 2019 and September 2020 compared to the prior year.
  • While overdose deaths from drugs had begun rising in the months leading to the pandemic — after dipping slightly in 2018 for the first time in years — the biggest spike in deaths occurred in April and May 2020, when shutdowns were strictest.

Of note: While the earliest years of the opioid epidemic were worst among white Americans in rural and suburban areas, Black Americans are now suffering disproportionately.

Details: Experts connect some of the increase in overdose deaths to the social isolation and temporary closure of many treatment programs during the pandemic.

  • One study found that people used drugs more frequently during the pandemic, and often did so alone, putting them at greater risk of dying of an overdose.
  • At least 25% of syringe-service programs reported having to close sites because of distancing policies during the pandemic, and nearly half had to restrict operating hours.

The bottom line: As we worry about the very rare side effects of some COVID-19 vaccines, we shouldn't forget about the deadly unintended consequences of other measures designed to control the pandemic.

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