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Expand chart
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.

Go deeper

Apr 14, 2021 - Axios Denver

Mental health poised to be Colorado's next pandemic priority

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The pandemic left no life unscathed, and the universal experience of enduring a tumultuous year has made health and wellness a pressing priority for people from all walks of life.

  • "There’s a new dynamic. … It’s almost like it’s OK to get help," Dr. Carl Clark, president and CEO of the Mental Health Center of Denver, tells Axios.

Thousands without power as "hazardous" winter storm lashes East Coast

Winter view from Charlotte as winter storm Izzy creates dangerous conditions in Charlotte, N.C. on Jan. 16. Photo: Peter Zay/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

A major winter storm was lashing much of the East Coast on Sunday, causing widespread power outages and disrupting travel over the holiday weekend.

The big picture: Heavy snow and ice accumulations are "likely to produce hazardous travel," downed trees and more power outages from the Mid-South to the Northeast, per the National Weather Service. Some parts of the U.S. can expect to see up to a foot of snow through Monday.

Updated 3 hours ago - Science

Volcanic eruption in Tonga caused "significant" damage

This satellite image of the eruption on Jan. 15 taken by Himawari-8, a Japanese weather satellite operated by Japan Meteorological Agency and released by National Institute of Information and Communications Technology (NICT). Photo: NICT via AP

Significant damage has been reported in Tonga following an undersea volcanic eruption on Saturday, which covered the Pacific nation in ash and cut off communication lines.

Driving the news: The eruption triggered tsunami warnings across Tonga's islands and in other regions, including the West Coast of the U.S. and New Zealand.

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