Michael K. Williams’s Death Sheds Light on the Overdose Crisis During the Pandemic


Beloved actor Michael K. Williams was found dead on September 6, and last week his death was officially ruled an accidental overdose involving fentanyl. Unfortunately, deaths like Williams’s are common in the U.S.—and rose to even more catastrophic levels during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Williams, 54, was known for his portrayals of Omar on The Wire and Montrose Freeman on Lovecraft Country, among many others. He had a profound knack for bringing complex characters to life with a rare degree of sensitivity, depth, and humanity. Williams had also been open about his experiences with addiction in an effort to help others dealing with similar issues. And his death is a tragic reminder of how common—and preventable—overdose deaths are in the U.S., particularly among Black people and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deaths involving synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl, have been rising since about 2013, according to recent research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in 2019, the CDC estimates, there were about 72,000 overdose deaths in the country. But in 2020 that number hit 95,000, an increase of more than 30% in just a year.

That increase was not distributed equally, however. Large-scale studies looking at overdose deaths and race during the pandemic are lacking right now (and, of course, the pandemic is still ongoing). But in San Francisco, the rate of overdose deaths among Black people was three times that of white people (272 compared with 89 per 100,000 residents) after shelter-in-place orders went into effect, according to a study in JAMA Network Open. In Philadelphia, opioid overdose deaths actually decreased during the pandemic among white people, another JAMA study found, but they increased among Black people by about 52% between June 2019 and June 2020. Previous research also found that Black patients who present to the ER after an overdose are less likely to receive follow-ups (including treatment for addiction or medication prescription for opioid use disorder, for instance) than white patients.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the rates of overdose deaths among Black and Hispanic populations were already rising quickly while overall the rate was leveling off. Although experts are still working to understand how the pandemic exacerbated the overdose crisis in the U.S., some have theorized that increased isolation, greater difficulty accessing medication for opioid use disorder, and ongoing stigma all played—and continue to play—a part.

But the truth is that overdose deaths like this are largely preventable—and every single one that happens is more evidence of the failure of public policy in the U.S. that disproportionately results in the loss of Black lives. We have naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses and literally save lives. We have the ability to quickly and easily check drugs for the presence of fentanyl and other potentially dangerous compounds. We have the ability to create supervised consumption sites, expand access to medication-assisted treatment, and implement many other options to reduce harm and keep people alive. But politics, stigma, and a systemic lack of prioritization keep so many who could benefit from these kinds of measures from accessing them.

“We are heartbroken to hear the news of Michael K. Williams’s passing. His death reminds us that our work is more urgent than ever,” Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, wrote in a statement after Williams’s death. “It is clear by all measures that the U.S.’ approach is not working and that our communities need more. We need to reduce stigma that drives people to use alone and eliminate criminalization in favor of a public health approach so we can build a world where we can all dance and love like Michael.”


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