Drug overdose deaths in the US jumped nearly 30 percent in 2020

The story behind these numbers is complex, but opioids have played a major role

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A naloxone kit for rapid treatment of opioid overdoses

Jeff Anderson on Flickr

On Wednesday July 14, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on the incidence of drug overdoses in the US. According to the provisional figures, the number of overdose deaths in 2020 jumped nearly 30 percent above 2019 levels to 93,331 — the largest year-over-year increase on record.

The story behind these numbers is complex, but opioids have played a major role. Opioid overdose deaths first started rising in the late 1990s due to increased prescribing of prescription opioids. The second wave began in 2010, with a rapid increase in overdose deaths involving heroin. Most recently, the introduction of the synthetic opioid fentanyl in 2013 ushered in the third wave of the opioid epidemic. The drug is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, so just a few hundred micrograms can cause an overdose. 

Adding to the danger, fentanyl is often found in combination with other drugs such as cocaine. The proportion of overdose deaths involving fentanyl and other opioids increased between 2019 and 2020 in part due to the insidious practice by people manufacturing the drugs of mixing small but potentially lethal amounts of fentanyl with other drugs without the knowledge of the person who uses it. 

Although shocking in its magnitude, the increase in overdose deaths didn’t come as a surprise to healthcare officials. Limitations on social mobility due to COVID-19 had the effect of reducing access to social support networks and harm-reduction initiatives, such as narcan administration, that are key to combating drug overdose

The 2020 data on drug overdoses is concerning, but there may be hope that the situation can be meaningfully improved in the short term. Since COVID-19 eroded the support systems that prevent drug overdose, the pandemic’s end should enable those systems to be repaired, allowing us to combat two public health crises at once. Even if overdose death rates can be reversed in the short term, however, it will take a concerted effort by governments and communities to reverse the underlying trends of the overdose epidemic.