Drug overdoses surged amid COVID lockdowns; more deaths in one year than ever before

More than 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses during the 12 months following the COVID-19 lockdowns, the most overdose deaths ever recorded in a one-year span, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics estimates released Wednesday show 100,306 drug overdose deaths during 12 months ending in April. That represents a jump of 28.5% from the 78,056 deaths during the same period one year before, and is more than double the number of deaths each year from vehicle crashes.

The provisional data, which includes cases still under investigation, provides the first full picture of the impact of stay-at-home orders many states implemented mid- to late March 2020 to limit spread of the coronavirus. Although states began to ease restriction weeks or months later, some people in recovery struggled to maintain sobriety, while others turned to drugs to cope.

Experts say the drug overdose deaths spiked as people felt isolated, lost jobs or struggled with the emotional toll of loved ones afflicted with COVID-19.

“Two forces here are the negative economic impact of the pandemic as well as the emotional impact,” said Dr. Paul Christo, associate professor of anesthesiology and critical care at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. “That led a lot of people to use drugs … To cope.”.

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While prescription painkillers drove the nation’s overdose epidemic in the past decade, they were supplanted by heroin and more recently by fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other street drugs.

Even a small amount of the drug, often smuggled into the U.S. From Mexico with chemical components made in labs overseas, is enough to kill. The Drug Enforcement Administration recently seized large shipments of fake pills containing fentanyl that were made to look like common prescription opioids or benzodiazepines. The amount of fentanyl seized so far this year would be enough to deliver a lethal dose to every American, said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram.

“One of the problems of why we’re seeing so many overdoses is due to fentanyl,” said Jon Zibbell, a senior scientist at RTI International, a nonprofit. “If you removed fentanyl from the equation, deaths would plummet.”.

‘Knew nothing about the drug’

AJ Bank, 23, of Aurora, Illinois, was furloughed from his job as a server and bartender at Chili’s last year when lockdowns limited the restaurant’s in-person dining. The temporary joblessness worsened his existing depression and stoked worries about money and mounting bills.

So, his mother Wendy Bank said, he self-medicated with a street version of ketamine, a drug being studied as a possible treatment for depression but also one that circulated for years as the club drug called Special K.

He secured the drug from a friend on Oct. 1, 2020. The drug was laced with a potent dose of fentanyl, enough of the powerful opioid to kill more than one dozen people. His body was discovered in his home the next day.

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Bank had planned to move to Florida to complete his studies and become a marine mechanic. Instead, he became one of last year’s record number of overdose deaths.

“He was just a very good-hearted, loving human being,” his mother said.

Wendy Bank had never heard of fentanyl before the drug claimed her son. Now she questions whether federal and state governments are doing enough to protect tens of thousands of Americans from its deadly grip.

“I wished I had known about fentanyl so I could have warned him,” she said. “But I knew nothing about the drug, let alone knowing drugs on the street were being laced with the deadly poison.”.

Biden plan seeks to slow overdoses

The Biden administration last month announced a four-part strategy that aims to slow the nation’s spiraling overdose deaths.

The plan seeks to prevent substance-use disorder, expand medication-assisted treatment for people with opioid-use disorder and support people in recovery from addiction. The plan also would fund harm-reduction strategies such as distributing the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone, expand access to test strips that can detect fentanyl, and support programs that supply clean needles to prevent the transmission of HIV and hepatitis C.

In a call with reporters Wednesday, Biden administration officials called on Congress to fully fund the more than $11 billion in drug-related programs the president has requested to implement his plan.

“It’s time to face the facts that this crisis seems to be getting worse,” said Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra. “It’s time to stop the stigma, stop the blame. It’s time for inclusion, solidarity, compassion, and it’s time to follow the science and the data about what works.”.

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Zibbell studied the use of fentanyl test strips made available to about 125 injection drug users in Greensboro, North Carolina. Participants who used test strips were fives times more likely to switch to safer methods if fentanyl was found in the drug they were using. Drug users might take a smaller amount of the drug, inject a tester shot or snort the drug instead of using a syringe.

He is now doing a larger National Institutes of Health-funded study on the use of fentanyl test strips among drug users in Morgantown, West Virginia, and Hickory, North Carolina.

Zibbell says the test strips have the potential to change behavior and save lives. People who use stimulants such as methamphetamine or cocaine, for example, might be “opioid naive” and their body might not be ready for the rapid, depressive effects of fentanyl, he said.

While advocates of harm reduction say evidence is on their side, many states still have laws that prevent the opening of supervised consumption sites that allow users to access clean needles, naloxone or test strips. Some opponents argue needle exchanges and other harm reduction programs promote intravenous drug use and other unsafe behaviors.

Even fentanyl test strips in Pennsylvania and Texas are classified as drug paraphernalia and subject to prosecution.

Christo of Johns Hopkins said the epidemic points to the need for states and the federal government to better coordinate on harm reduction strategies to slow rising overdose deaths.

“I hope if states certainly as well as the federal government come together to create a strong policy, useful public health measures to help combat the epidemic,” he said.

Ken Alltucker is on Twitter at @kalltucker, or can be emailed at [email protected].

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