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Tablets believed to be laced with fentanyl are displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration Northeast Regional Laboratory in New York. Photo: Don Emmert/AFP via Getty Images

The acting director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Regina LaBelle, on Thursday said that drug deaths increased by 26.8% during the coronavirus pandemic.

What she's saying: "We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020," LaBelle said, according to NPR.

  • "Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase."

By the numbers: That is almost 20,000 more drug overdose deaths than reported in 2019, which saw 70,630 deaths, per the CDC.

  • Nearly 841,000 people have died from a drug overdose since 1999, the CDC notes. Rates have been on the rise annually since then, the Independent reports.
  • Opioids remain the main cause of drug overdose fatalities, accounting for 70.6% of drug deaths in 2019.

LeBelle also revealed a plan designed by the Biden administration to help address "the overdose and addiction crisis" during its first year, saying that "new data suggest that COVID-19 has exacerbated the epidemic."

  • The administration will look to remove "unnecessary barriers" that prevent the prescription of buprenorphine — a drug proven to help patients with opioid use disorder, per NPR.
  • It plans to explore making the emergency provisions implemented during the pandemic permanent, including allowing health officials to treat patients with medication for opioid use disorder through telehealth without requiring in-person visits.
  • The White House plans to establish policy to help pregnant women suffering from substance abuse to get prenatal care and addiction treatment.
  • The plan says President Biden believes people should not be incarcerated for drug abuse, and should instead be offered treatment.

Go deeper

CDC: Suicides decreased in 2020

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Suicides in the U.S. decreased in 2020, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Why it matters: Critics of lockdowns and other coronavirus-prevention efforts have suggested throughout the pandemic that those measures would drive the suicide rate higher. But that hasn't happened.

George Floyd's girlfriend recounts how they met, struggled with opioids

George Floyd's girlfriend, who was in a relationship with him when he died, was visibly distressed Thursday as she recounted her first encounter with Floyd and answered questions about their opioid use.

Why it matters: The prosecution and defense fought to sway jurors on Day 4 of former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin's murder trial, casting Floyd as a devoted partner and a drug-addled drifter, respectively. Prosecutors are seeking Chauvin's conviction on murder and manslaughter charges.

Updated Apr 1, 2021 - Health

Ruined J&J doses may only be a "blip"

Photo: Gabrielle Lurie/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

A Baltimore plant ruined a batch of "drug substance" that would have gone into millions of doses of Johnson & Johnson's coronavirus vaccine — but sources familiar with the process say the setback ultimately may not be that bad.

The big picture: Anything that could slow down the vaccine production process is not good news, especially for the one-shot J&J vaccine. But some experts said the company and the overall U.S. vaccination effort will likely be able to recover quickly.