US drug overdose deaths surged during COVID-19 lockdowns

A few years ago, a person in New York City reads a flyer on the dangers of Fentanyl.
A few years ago, a person in New York City reads a flyer on the dangers of Fentanyl. (Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

U.S. overdose deaths surged during the first half of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

More than 87,200 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses, primarily related to opioids, in a 12-month period from September 2019 to September 2020, according to the data published Wednesday (April 16).  But officials predict there were likely more than 3,000 additional deaths due to overdose that weren't officially reported.

That's the highest number of overdose deaths since the opioid epidemic first started in the 1990s, according to The New York Times. It's also a setback from the slight drop in overdose deaths that the U.S. experienced for the first time in decades in 2018. 

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The climb in overdose deaths started in the months leading up to the pandemic but then surged during the pandemic last spring. The number of overdose deaths from September 2019 to September 2020 was 28.8% higher than the overdose deaths from September 2018 to September 2019. 

The largest increase in deaths occured in April and May of 2020, when many states were under the strictest lockdowns, people were losing their jobs, and fear and stress of the pandemic were widespread, according to the Times.

"What we saw particularly in the early days of COVID, but really to this day, is that the pandemic has really separated people from addiction treatment services, from harm reduction services and from the communities and networks that they use to stay safe and avoid overdose," Dr. Jessica Taylor, an addiction medicine specialist at Boston Medical Center's Grayken Center for Addiction and an assistant professor of Medicine at Boston University School of Medicine, told Boston 25 News

Access to telemedicine services and pharmaceuticals to treat addiction disorders is key to reversing the trend, Taylor said.

Most of the drug overdoses are due to illegally made fentanyl and other synthetic opioids but some were also due to stimulant drugs like methamphetamine, according to the Times. More and more deaths are involving combinations of drugs, such as fentanyl or heroin mixed with stimulants.

"The highest increase in mortality from opioids, predominantly driven by fentanyl, is now among Black Americans," Dr. Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said at an addiction conference last week, the Times reported. "And when you look at mortality from methamphetamine, it's chilling to realize that the risk of dying from methamphetamine overdose is 12-fold higher among American Indians and Alaskan Natives than other groups."

The new report is based on data from the National Vital Statistics System database.

Originally published on Live Science.

Yasemin Saplakoglu
Staff Writer

Yasemin is a staff writer at Live Science, covering health, neuroscience and biology. Her work has appeared in Scientific American, Science and the San Jose Mercury News. She has a bachelor's degree in biomedical engineering from the University of Connecticut and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.