How the pandemic is contributing to alarming rise in opioid overdose deaths

The nation’s opioid epidemic has never been deadlier. The Centers for Disease Control Prevention says 100,000 people died of drug overdoses over the last year — a 30 percent increase from the year before and an all-time high. As William Brangham reports, these deaths are fueled by the rise of the extremely potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The nation's opioid epidemic has never been deadlier.

    The CDC says that 100,000 people died of drug overdoses over the past year. That's a 30 percent increase from the year before and an all-time high.

    As William Brangham reports, these deaths are fueled by the rise of the extremely potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

  • William Brangham:

    Judy, the deadly rise of fentanyl is prompting calls for more to be done to battle this crisis.

    The Biden administration has announced it will increase federal support for so-called harm reduction strategies and increased funding for medically assisted addiction treatment.

    Joining me now is Dr. Andrew Kolodny. He's the medical director of opioid policy research at Brandeis' Heller School For Social Policy and Management.

    Dr. Kolodny, great to have you back on the "NewsHour."

    These are just unprecedented numbers. One of the statistics was that one American is dying every five minutes from an overdose. I mean, you have been studying these trends throughout this entire epidemic. Did these numbers surprise you?

  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny, Brandeis University:

    They did.

    I had expected that we were going to be receiving bad news, but I didn't anticipate they would get this much worse; 100,000 deaths in a 12-month period is a new very grim milestone in this very long crisis.

  • William Brangham:

    I mentioned that the rise of fentanyl is one of the issues driving this.

    Can you help us what else is part of it? Is it largely fentanyl? And what else is driving this?

  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny:

    Overwhelmingly, these deaths involve illicitly synthesized fentanyl.

    And before COVID hit, the fentanyl problem had mainly been affecting the eastern half of the United States. After COVID hit — and this may have been related to less cross-border traffic, which would favor the smuggling of the more potent opioid, fentanyl vs. heroin — we started to see more fentanyl impacting the western half of the United States.

    And so regions of the country that experienced some of the greatest increases over the past 12 months have been the states that didn't experience the earlier skyrocketing in fentanyl deaths.

  • William Brangham:

    And I understand that it is men disproportionately. I think it's 70 percent of these overdose deaths are amongst men 25 to 50 years old.

    Is it the assumption that these people are also prior to their death suffering from substance abuse disorders, addiction issues?

  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny:

    That's absolutely right.

    The vast majority of opioid overdose deaths are occurring in people suffering from opioid addiction. And among the populations of Americans who are opioid-addicted right now, we have two groups that have been relying primarily on the black market, on heroin.

    We have a younger white group, disproportionately white, people in their 20s, 30s, early 40s, that have been relying on heroin, actually switching to heroin, after having first been addicted to prescription opioids. And we have an older disproportionately black and Latino group.

    In these heroin-using groups of opioid-addicted Americans, the deaths have been skyrocketing because the heroin supply is now so much more dangerous because of fentanyl.

  • William Brangham:

    And, of course, this is all happening in the midst of a viral pandemic that is also impacting every aspect of our society.

    In what ways does that pandemic affect this epidemic?

  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny:

    So, we understand that most of these deaths are occurring in people who are addicted, not in individuals who are saying, gee, using heroin or fentanyl would be a fun thing to do.

    These are people who are really suffering and who need help. And, unfortunately, it's been much easier for these individuals to access heroin or fentanyl than to access effective treatment.

    And it does appear that, as COVID hit, the ability to access effective treatment for opioid addiction became even more difficult. So, if someone's waking up in the morning, and they're already feeling sick, and they know that, if they use heroin or fentanyl, they can start to feel better, that's what they're going to do, rather than seek treatment.

    The other problem has been, for people who are opioid-addicted, we know that psychosocial distress, social isolation can contribute to relapse. And years ago, a slip or a relapse might not be the end of the world. But now all it takes is one slip. With such a dangerous illicit opioid supply, one slip can easily lead to an overdose death.

  • William Brangham:

    President Biden campaigned on ramping up federal support for drug prevention and drug treatment.

    Is it your sense that he has lived up to that promise? And what kinds of strategies going forward should the federal government be doing to try to address this?

  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny:

    When President Biden was campaigning, in his platform, he put together a really good plan on how to address the opioid crisis, but he has not yet implemented that plan.

    One of the things that we have to do, and do immediately, is make sure that effective treatment is easier for people to access. It has to be essentially free. During the AIDS crisis, as a nation, we made a decision that, if somebody was HIV-positive, they should have access to antiretroviral therapy regardless of their ability to pay for it.

    That's what we need to do for the opioid crisis today. Instead, what we're hearing from the Biden administration is about more one-year or two-year federal appropriations to states. That's not adequate. For states to build out the treatment programs we need, they have to have a commitment to long-term funding or the new funding streams.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Dr. Andrew Kolodny of Brandeis' Heller School, thank you very much for being here.

  • Dr. Andrew Kolodny:

    Thank you for having me.

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