The covid-19 pandemic isn’t the only public health crisis the U.S. is currently dealing with, as new government data released this week illustrates. In 2019, there were nearly 71,000 deaths attributed to drug overdose, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the highest yearly number to date. And it’s looking like this year will be even worse.
The figures come from a provisional count of mortality data collected from all states and territories and analyzed by the CDC. Though the CDC tries to account for gaps in the data, such as reporting delays, it’s possible that the exact numbers may change by the time a final analysis is published. Still, the provisional data now covers all 12 months of 2019 and is unlikely to change significantly between now and the final report.
By the CDC’s count, there were 70,980 deaths related to drug overdose, slightly above the 70,237 deaths officially recorded in 2017, currently the high-water mark. As with previous years, a majority of these deaths involved opioids, with synthetic opioids like fentanyl linked to some 36,000 deaths (it’s worth noting that overdose deaths sometimes involve more than one drug).
2018 saw a slight decline in overdose deaths, down to around 68,000, which raised hopes that the situation overall was starting to improve. But it seems that these gains may have been illusory. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the greater use of harm-reduction methods in drug policies, it’s likely that 2020 won’t be any better, given the far-reaching effects of the pandemic so far.
“While the increase in overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2019 is devastating, it is not at all surprising, and there is reason to believe that these deaths will continue to climb in 2020 as a result of the covid-19 pandemic, which has increased isolation, disrupted the drug supply and reduced access to harm reduction and treatment supports,” said Sheila Vakharia, deputy director of the Department of Research & Academic Engagement for the DPA, in a statement sent to Gizmodo.
In some areas of the country, there have already been reports of greater overdose deaths during the pandemic relative to recent years. Providers of sterile syringe exchange programs have also reported needing to shut down or reduce their availability in the face of pandemic-related lockdowns. Though there have been changes made so that people can have easier access to medications like methadone, which help to treat opioid use disorder, advocates have argued that these policies don’t go far enough and force people to either risk getting covid-19 by going out in public or risk worsening their substance use disorder by staying home.
According to Vakharia, it’s more essential than ever to double down on overdose-prevention approaches that have been proven to work, “such as keeping loosened regulations for methadone and buprenorphine in place, allowing overdose prevention sites to legally open and allocating federal funding towards syringe exchange and naloxone access.”