Overdose deaths were on the rise again last year. After a brief respite in 2018, the number of deadly drug overdoses rose to record numbers in 2019, according to newly released data. Even more worryingly, the new data does not take into account the Covid-19 pandemic, an uncertain period that many experts say is fueling more overdoses than before.
Up to 70,980 people in the US died of reported drug overdoses between December 2018 and December 2019, according to provisional data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) last week. Since many deaths go unreported, however, they estimate that the real figure is closer to 71,999 deaths.
This is the highest number of overdose deaths in a 12-month period since the CDC started keeping tabs on the statistics in 2015. Their figures show a slow but steady increase in fatal overdoses from 2015 to 2017, before experiencing a slight dip in 2018. After this appearance of progress, the increasing trend has now resumed.
The trend is being driven by synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Said to be up to 100 times more potent than morphine, fentanyl is the notorious synthetic cousin of heroin that has become the face of North America’s opioid crisis. However, there has also been a rise in overdoses caused by heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and semisynthetic opioids, such as prescription drugs like oxycodone.
Upwards of 35 states reported an increase in the number of fatal overdoses in 2019, while just over a dozen saw declines, per the new data (dashboard below).
Now comes the worry of how these figures might continue to increase in the wake of the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak. On July 8, the American Medical Association (AMA) said it was “greatly concerned” after compiling a huge list of national and local media reports that showed increases in opioid-related overdoses since the global pandemic began earlier this year. There is currently no conclusive evidence about why this is the case, although most experts believe it's a reflection of increased social isolation, greater job insecurity, and lack of access to support.
Richard Jorgensen, MD, the DuPage County coroner, explained there's recently been a "marked increase" in fatal overdoses across the US over the past few months. “We do not know if this is due to a change in the makeup of the drugs, drug usage on the streets or due to current COVID-19-related changes in society,” he said in an AMA statement.
“They said we were echoing what they had seen, and they were seeing increasing problems with people they had treated relapsing or reaching out to their sponsors,” Jorgensen said.
“We need to reach out to the vulnerable in our society,” he added.