As Covid raged, so did the country’s other epidemic. Drug overdose deaths rose nearly 30 percent in 2020 to a record 93,000, according to preliminary statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s the largest single-year increase recorded, reported by The New York Times.
The deaths rose in every state but two, South Dakota and New Hampshire, with pronounced increases in the South and West.
Several grim records were set: the most drug overdose deaths in a year; the most deaths from opioid overdoses; the most overdose deaths from stimulants like methamphetamine; the most deaths from the deadly class of synthetic opioids known as fentanyls.
“It’s huge, it’s historic, it’s unheard of, unprecedented, and a real shame,” said Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies heroin markets. “It’s a complete shame.”
In recent years, annual drug overdose deaths had already eclipsed the peak yearly deaths from car crashes, gun violence or the AIDS epidemic.
The death toll from Covid-19 surpassed 375,000 last year, the largest American mortality event in a century, but drug deaths were experienced disproportionately among the young. In total, the 93,000 deaths cost Americans about 3.5 million years of life, according to a New York Times analysis. By comparison, coronavirus deaths in 2020 were responsible for about 5.5 million years of life.
The pandemic itself undoubtedly contributed to the surge in overdose deaths, with disruption to outreach and treatment facilities and increased social isolation. Overdose deaths reached a peak nationally in the spring of 2020, in the midst of the pandemic’s most severe period of shutdowns and economic contraction. But public health experts said there had been a pre-pandemic pattern of escalating deaths, as fentanyls became more entrenched in the nation’s drug supply, replacing heroin in many cities and finding their way into other drugs like meth.
After decades of increases, overdose deaths dipped slightly in 2018. But they resumed their upward course in 2019, and drug deaths were rising in the early months of 2020, even before Covid arrived.
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