US overdose deaths in 2020 likely topped 90,000 

Overdose deaths likely claimed the lives of nearly 90,000 Americans left isolated and broke amid the pandemic, new data suggests. 

Between September 2019 and August 2020, there were 88,295 ‘predicted’ overdose deaths – a rough estimate based on early data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

That’s a record-high for that period, and outstrips drug overdose fatalities from the prior September-to-August period by 19,000 deaths.

Fatal overdoses belong to a category dubbed by the CDC ‘deaths of despair.’ Along with alcoholism and suicide, these fatalities are driven isolation and poverty. 

The latest data are a sobering reminder that a second health crisis – the opioid epidemic – continues to rage in America, both overshadowed and fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Overdose deaths for 2020 could easily exceed 90,000 by the time they are fully tallied, a Commonwealth Fund analysis predicts. 

Drug overdose deaths spiked by 50% amid the pandemic, peaking at 9,000 death  a month in the spring (blue). Three-quarters of those deaths involved opioids (green), and 80% of opioid deaths involved synthetic drugs like fentanyl (orange) 

At long last, drug fatalities began to ebb back to pre-pandemic levels in January. 

But it came after record-death tolls, month after month. 

At the start of the pandemic’s grip on the U.S., the overdose death surged by 50 percent compared to years prior. 

There were about 9,000 deaths a month between February and May of last year. 

Previously, the record for overdose deaths since the CDC began tracking overdose deaths in the 1990s was 6,300. 

Even after the height of the winter and spring overdose surge in 2020, these deaths remained at record-high levels.  

In August, models from the CDC and the Commonwealth Fund suggest that about 8,000 people died of drug overdoses 

Throughout the pandemic – and before it began – opioid overdose deaths were the main driver of the overall trends in drug fatalities. 

About three-quarters of drug deaths in in the early months of the pandemic in the U.S. involved opioids.  

And 80 percent of those opioid deaths involved synthetic drugs like the ultra-potent fentanyl that has become the top culprit in the overdose epidemic. 

West Virginia has historically suffered the greatest number of opioid overdose deaths each year, as the epidemic has been particularly hard on the rural, poor state. 

But during the pandemic, the sharpest rises were seen in Louisiana and South Carolina, which each saw overdose deaths increase by more than 60 percent between January and August of 2020 compared to the previous year. 

No state was untouched by the rise in overdose deaths, according to the Commonwealth Fund’s predictions. 

However, fatalities increased by less than 10 percent in Utah, Kansas, Maryland, Massachusetts, Montana and the Dakotas during the first eight months of the pandemic.  

Overdose deaths rose by about a third nationwide between January and August. 

Sadly, the upward trend in overdose deaths during the pandemic was expected. 

Social isolation is a primary risk factor for drug overdoses, and avoiding one another has been crucial to slowing the spread of coronavirus. 

Former President Trump argued that more lives would be lost to drug and alcohol addictions and suicides amid the pandemic than would be lost to COVID-19.  

Even if the overdose death toll for 2020 ultimately rises to the 90,000 the Commonwealth Fund report warns of, that will still be a fraction of the 556,000 lives lost to COVID-19 so far – or the 375,000 estimated to have been killed by coronavirus in 2020 alone.  

Still, there is no vaccine for the opioid epidemic. 

President Biden has promised to tackle the now-silent epidemic of overdoses but, so far, his administration has done little to act on that. 

In fact, Biden rolled back a Trump-era executive order that made buprenorphine, a drug used to help ease the process of quitting opioids, which is proven to help prevent relapses. 

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