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Drug overdose deaths top 100,000 for first time

The toll marked a 28.5 percent increase over the previous 12-month period

Kris Perry Long spoke about her children's struggles with addiction at Foxborough Common, Mass. on August 29, 2021. 12,000 flags were planted along the Foxborough Common to represent the number of overdoses in Massachusetts from 2015.
Kris Perry Long spoke about her children's struggles with addiction at Foxborough Common, Mass. on August 29, 2021. 12,000 flags were planted along the Foxborough Common to represent the number of overdoses in Massachusetts from 2015. (Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Annual deaths from drug overdoses topped 100,000 for the first time, according to new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, a harrowing statistic as the nation continues to cope with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data published Wednesday suggest that a projected 100,306 individuals died from drug overdoses over the 12-month period ending in April, a 28.5 percent increase over the previous 12-month period.

Drug overdose death data lag information for other causes of death, but CDC data already show that at least 97,990 people are confirmed to have died from drugs during this time period.

By comparison, about 38,680 people died in motor vehicle crashes in 2020.

The data estimate that overdose deaths specifically from opioids grew to 75,673 from 56,064 in the previous year.

“This is unacceptable and requires an unprecedented response,” said Office for National Drug Control Policy Director Rahul Gupta during a call with reporters Wednesday, noting that an American dies of an overdose about every five minutes.

Only four states —Delaware, New Jersey, New Hampshire and South Dakota — saw decreases in the number of drug overdose deaths.

“Synthetic fentanyl and methamphetamines are driving the overdose crisis in America,” said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. “Fentanyl is being mixed with other drugs like cocaine, heroin, marijuana and meth, and drug traffickers and networks are flooding our communities with fentanyl and methamphetamine in the form of fake counterfeit prescription pills.”

Milgram said fentanyl seizures by the agency have hit record highs with 12,000 pounds of the highly potent drug seized this year — enough to provide every U.S. resident with a lethal dose.

The United States has seen an upward trend of drug overdose deaths during the pandemic. In 2019, CDC had reported a slight decrease in drug-related deaths, after a previous high of 72,000 in 2017.

But a sharp turnaround occurred during the pandemic.

In 2019, the National Institutes of Health announced a study seeking to cut opioid deaths by 40 percent in four states within three years. Currently, all of the four states — Kentucky, Ohio, New York, and Massachusetts — are seeing increases in deaths.

“Unfortunately, when we were planning these studies, we were completely unaware, we couldn’t have predicted that there would be the COVID pandemic basically taking over,” said National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora Volkow on the call. “What we have seen is that the stressors from the COVID pandemic have led to more drug abuse, to difficulty in accessing treatments, and to the erosion of the community support systems that actually prevent people that are taking drugs from escalating and that sustain their recovery.”

Administration action

The administration announced it would take additional steps to reduce drug overdoses.

ONDCP on Wednesday released a model law for states to expand the use of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone. The model law serves as a framework for states to enact various policies to expand access to the drug.

“No one should die from an overdose, and naloxone is one of the most effective tools we have to save lives. But sadly, today, people with substance use disorders are overdosing and dying across the country because naloxone access depends a great deal on where you live,” said Gupta.

The model law includes provisions to require coverage of drugs like naloxone, increase bystander education, and expand access to the drug in correctional and educational facilities.

Gupta also emphasized the need for Congress to fully fund President Joe Biden’s budget request to prevent drug use and expand treatment. The request calls for $41 billion for national drug program agencies, which would be a $669.9 million increase over enacted levels.

“We cannot accomplish this without the support of Congress,” said Gupta.

The administration also pointed to a number of actions it has taken to stem the tide of overdose death increases, including a number of first-year drug policy priorities the White House released in April.

The March COVID-19 relief law provided $4 billion to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to expand treatment for mental health and substance use disorders, and in June, DEA lifted restrictions on opioid treatment organizations that want to provide mobile care.

Deb Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC, said the agency continues to work with federal partners to address overdoses on a local level.

“CDC continues to help support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis. Our priority is to do everything we can to put people on the ground to save lives,” she said.

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