More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in the U.S. last year, a record experts say was partly triggered by the isolation that many experienced during coronavirus-related lockdowns.
The government reported Wednesday that the 2020 total easily surpassed the previous record of about 72,000 deaths in 2019.
“This is a staggering loss of human life,” Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends, told the Associated Press. He said the United States was already faced with an overdose epidemic but that the pandemic “has greatly exacerbated the crisis.”
In addition to isolation, many sources of help for addicts were not available during lockdowns.
"During the pandemic, a lot of [drug] programs weren't able to operate. Street-level outreach was very difficult. People were very isolated," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, a health policy expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.
Health experts say that while prescription painkillers once played a key role in U.S. drug overdose deaths, heroin and then in recent years fentanyl — a dangerously powerful opioid — proved exceptionally lethal.
Fentanyl was developed to legitimately treat intense medical pain, but now is sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.
The government’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said its studies show fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of overdose deaths last year.
One of the 93,000 was Jordan McGlashen of Ypsilanti, Michigan, who died of a heroin and fentanyl overdose May 6. He would have turned 39 six days later.
“It was really difficult for me to think about the way in which Jordan died. He was alone, and suffering emotionally and felt like he had to use again,” said his younger brother, Collin McGlashen.
Fentanyl is increasingly being found mixed with other drugs.
“What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply,” said Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University who researches geographic patterns in overdoses. “Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated.”
The scope is staggering. The CDC is reporting that drug overdoses in 2020 increased in every state but New Hampshire and South Dakota.
States with the biggest increases in overdose deaths were Vermont, up 57.6%; followed by Kentucky, up 54%; South Carolina, up 52%; West Virginia, up nearly 50%; and California, up 46%.
Sharfstein of Johns Hopkins says the U.S. is likely now seeing more overdose deaths than deaths from COVID-19.
"This is a different kind of crisis, and it's not going to go away as quickly,” he said.
Some information for this report came from the Associated Press and Reuters.