For the first time in U.S. history, more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses in a single year, according to provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
That number represents an increase of 28.5% above the same time period the year prior, from April 2020 to April 2021, per the CDC.
“As we continue to make strides to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country,” President Joe Biden said via a White House statement.
Opioids, which include drugs like fentanyl and heroin, caused more than 75% of fatal drug overdoses within the reported year. Opioid-related deaths also rose by 35% over the year prior.
“[Overdoses] are driven both by fentanyl and also by methamphetamines,” Nora Volkov, M.D., director of the National Institute On Drug Abuse, told NPR. “They are among the most addictive drugs that we know of and the most lethal.”
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the CDC. While it is available via prescription as a painkiller, most deaths from it are linked to fentanyl that is illegally made and sold through drug markets, per the CDC. Often, the drug is combined with cocaine and/or heroin to provide euphoric effects, sometimes without the knowledge of the person or people ingesting it. Fentanyl has been involved in the overdose-related deaths of many public figures and celebrities, including the recent death of renowned actor Michael K. Williams.
There are racial disparities in drug overdose deaths too. Non-Hispanic Black Americans saw a 38% increase in opioid deaths between 2018 and 2019, even as other races held steady, according to a study by the National Institutes of Health. That data was collected from four U.S. states—New York, Massachusetts, Kentucky, and Ohio. A 2019 report by the Minnesota Department of Health found that Black individuals were twice as likely to die of a drug overdose than white people. Indigenous Americans were seven times more likely to die.
The pandemic has exacerbated substance use while also restricting the ability to seek treatment for many. In an August 2020 CDC report that surveyed 5,400 people in June of that year, 13% of respondents reported starting or increasing substance use due to challenging emotions amid COVID-19. Meanwhile, providers were forced to move support groups online, treatment centers reduced family visits, and clinics that provide addiction medications limited access to their waiting rooms, as The Washington Post reported.
In August 2021, beyond the timeframe the latest CDC reports data represents, the U.S. also faced a shortage of the potentially life-saving drug, naloxone, as SELF reported. When administered correctly and quickly, naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose by blocking opioid receptors in the body, as MedlinePlus explains.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released an overdose prevention strategy this October, which focuses on four main tactics: substance use disorder prevention, harm reduction, evidence-based treatment, and recovery support. The Biden administration has also asked Congress to approve $10 billion in drug treatment and interception program funding, and requested that states make access rules for naloxone less complicated, as NPR reported.
“To all those families who have mourned a loved one and to all those people who are facing addiction or are in recovery: You are in our hearts, and you are not alone,” President Biden said. “Together, we will turn the tide on this epidemic.”