More than 100,000 people in the United States fatally overdosed on drugs during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to staggering new preliminary data released Tuesday.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, overdose deaths in the U.S. increased by 28.5 percent over the previous year, a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, confirming many experts’ worst fears about dueling crises in public health.
“An overdose is a cry for help,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, who directs the White House Office of Drug Control Policy, during a call with reporters Wednesday.
Vermont, West Virginia and Kentucky saw the nation’s steepest climbs in overdose deaths. But these deaths were up across much of the country, with fentanyl linked to many of them. In September, the Department of Justice announced a crackdown on fentanyl across the U.S., noting that criminal drug networks were producing and distributing pills laced with the synthetic opioid.
To respond to this rise in drug-related deaths, Health Secretary Xavier Becerra said the Biden administration would roll out a four-prong strategy. This includes primary prevention, evidence-based treatment, recovery support and harm reduction, such as expanded access to naloxone, a life-saving antidote that reverses potentially fatal overdose.
“We’re going to stay there with you shoulder-to-shoulder,” Becerra said, emphasizing the need to support people who are ready to enter recovery.
For too long, access to naloxone has been dictated by a person’s ZIP code, Gupta said. That is why the Biden administration shared model legislation for states to consider that could expand reach of naloxone into communities where this antidote has been difficult to find.
Over the last decade, opioids were tied to a multi-year dip in U.S. life expectancy, in part because so many people who overdosed were fairly young. But immediately before the COVID-19 pandemic, those life expectancy trends were starting to tilt upward.
Access to medication-assisted treatment and naloxone was on the rise, and communities were finally getting the financial and strategic help they needed. The pandemic disrupted people’s support systems, including transportation to health providers where they could get the help they needed while in recovery.
“No one should die of an overdose simply because they didn’t have access to naloxone,” Gupta said.