Drug overdose deaths hit record high in US as synthetic opioids and pandemic wreak havoc

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl are behind the spike in deaths

Richard Hall
Wednesday 17 November 2021 17:34
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The fight at the heart of America's opioid crisis| Behind The Headlines
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Drug overdose deaths in the United States have hit a record high as more than 100,000 people lost their lives in the last 12 months, according to new data.

The provisional figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) represent a 28.5 per cent increase from the same period a year earlier, driven mostly by a surge in deaths linked to the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Experts cited the increased availability of fentanyl and the impact of the pandemic in causing a rise in overdose deaths, as many addicts were prevented from seeking treatment due to public health restrictions.

A total of 100,306 people died from drug overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021. Synthetic opioids – drugs that mirror the effect of natural opioids like heroin but are more potent and can be made in a laboratory – were responsible for 64 per cent of the deaths, a rise of nearly 50 per cent on the year before, according to the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

The new CDC data found that the death toll rose in all but four states – Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota. The states with largest increases were Vermont (70 per cent), West Virginia (62 per cent) and Kentucky (55 per cent).

Deaths from methamphetamine and other psychostimulants also spiked dramatically, rising 48 per cent compared to the previous year.

The CDC previously reported that 2020 was the deadliest calendar year on record for overdose deaths, with 93,000 fatalities.

The new figures come less than a month after the Biden administration announced its plan to reduce overdose deaths. The Overdose Prevention Plan puts an emphasis on harm reduction by reducing barriers to treatment and overdose prevention. The administration said it had budgeted more than $11bn for 2022 to increase access to substance use treatment programmes.

Throughout the last year, people on the frontline of the opioid crisis sounded the alarm over rising overdose deaths as the pandemic created a perfect storm of conditions. Amanda Coleman, who runs a homeless shelter in Huntington, West Virginia – a town once known as “ground zero” of the opioid crisis — told The Independent earlier this year that she saw a spike in overdoses whenever stimulus cheques arrived.

“We were handing them Naloxone with their cheques,” she said, referring to the medication that revives someone who has overdosed.

“It was overdoses in our shelter, down the block. People would come running from two blocks away to ask for help. It was people coming in and saying, ‘I ODed three times this weekend’, or, ‘My friend ODed.’” she said.

Some addiction centres were forced to close temporarily due to public health measures. The increased isolation of lockdowns led to more people taking drugs alone, which meant people who overdosed had no one present to administer emergency life-saving treatment.

Chelsea Carter, who works at the Brighter Futures rehab clinic, told The Independent in June: “What’s happened now is all these people are still using alone and at home. Nobody’s there to call 911 when they overdose. So we have people dying at big rates.”

“Now it’s nothing to hear two, three, four people a day overdosing, and sometimes on even larger scales than that. It just depends on what’s going around.”

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