The record number reported by the US government on Wednesday shows a dramatic increase of more than 21,000 deaths since 2019, when there was 72,000 recorded drug overdose deaths, marking a 29 per cent increase.
Experts have said that the ongoing public health crisis has “exacerbated” underlying issues, making it harder for those struggling with addiction to access help.
“This is a staggering loss of human life,” Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends, told the Associated Press.
Health experts have said that the prolonged lockdown amid the pandemic alongside a reduction in services has isolated those with drug addictions.
“The pandemic has led to increased substance use across the board,” Kimberly Sue, medical director of the National Harm Reduction Coalition, an advocacy group that tries to prevent overdose deaths, told The Washington Post.
Ms Sue says people have turned to drugs as they “sought to manage stress, isolation, boredom, anxiety, depression, unemployment, relationship and child care issues, and housing instability”.
However, Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University, noted to the AP that what she believes to be behind the surge is people who had already been struggling with addiction.
The US opioid crisis began in the 1990s with the release of powerful new prescription drugs to treat chronic pain, which were replaced by heroin following regulations on their use in 2012 and then by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid.
Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.
“What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply,” Prof Monnat said. “Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated.”
The 21,000 increase between 2019 and 2020 is the biggest year-to-year jump since the count rose by 11,000 in 2016.
“Every one of those people, somebody loved them,” Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University and an expert on addiction and drug policy, told The Post.
“It’s terrifying. It’s the biggest increase in overdose deaths in the history of the United States, it’s the worst overdose crisis in the history of the United States, and we’re not making progress. It’s really overwhelming.”
As a result of the hundreds of thousands of additional deaths due to the pandemic, the nation saw its most deadly year in its history across 2020, the Associated Press reported.
Additional reporting by the Associated Press
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