According to stunning new preliminary data released Tuesday, more than 100,000 people in the United States have taken a fatal drug overdose during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, the number of drug overdose deaths in the US increased by 28.5 percent from the previous year, according to a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This confirms many experts’ biggest fears about combating public health crises.
“An overdose is a cry for help,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, who heads the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, speaking with reporters Tuesday.
Vermont, West Virginia and Kentucky saw the country’s steepest climbs in overdose deaths. But these deaths had risen across much of the country, with fentanyl associated with many of them. In September, the Justice Department announced a crackdown on fentanyl in the US, noting that criminal drug networks were producing and distributing pills laced with the synthetic opioid.
To respond to this rise in drug-related deaths, Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said the Biden administration would roll out a four-pronged strategy. This includes primary prevention, evidence-based treatment, recovery support, and harm reduction, such as expanded access to naloxone, a life-saving antidote that reverses a potentially fatal overdose.
“We will stick with you shoulder to shoulder,” Becerra said, emphasizing the need to support people who are ready to recover.
For too long, access to naloxone was determined by a person’s zip code, Gupta said. That’s why the Biden administration shared model legislation for states to consider that could expand naloxone’s reach to communities where this antidote was hard to find.
Over the past decade, opioids have been tied to a multi-year decline in life expectancy in the US, in part because so many people who overdose were quite young. But just before the COVID-19 pandemic, those life expectancy trends started to tilt upward.
Access to drug treatment and naloxone increased, and communities were finally getting the financial and strategic help they needed. The pandemic disrupted people’s support systems, including transportation to healthcare providers where they could get the help they needed during their recovery.
“No one should die from an overdose simply because they didn’t have access to naloxone,” Gupta said.