US surpasses record 100,000 overdose deaths in 2021
‘Calls for help’: Drug overdoses soar during coronavirus pandemic
More than 80,000 people have died using opioids, including prescription painkillers and fentanyl, a deadly drug 100 times more potent than morphine and increasingly found in other drugs. Deaths from methamphetamine and cocaine have also increased.
Since the turn of the 21st century, an epidemic of overdose led by prescription painkillers and followed by waves of heroin, fentanyl and methamphetamine has killed more than a million people, roughly the population of San Jose, according to provisional data.
And there is no clear end in sight, experts say.
“2022 will likely be as horrible as 2021, if not worse,” said Keith Humphreys, an addiction and drug policy researcher at Stanford University.
Overdose deaths reached levels not seen in the first half of the pandemic, rising 30% from 2019 to 2020. The coronavirus pandemic has strained finances, mental health, housing and more for many, while eclipsing the drug crisis. There are fears that an expected spike in cases this fall could further restrict access to treatment and medicine.
Covid has taken as many lives in two years compared to the two-decade span of the opioid epidemic. However, the victims of the drug epidemic are predominantly young. Between 2015 and 2019, young Americans lost an estimated 1.2 million years of life to drug overdoses, according to a study published in JAMA in January.
They had battled addiction together. Then lockdowns became a “recipe for death”.
Rural areas have been particularly devastated by the overdose crisis during the pandemic, as residents struggle to access remote and limited treatment options. Alaska saw the largest increase in overdose deaths in 2021, about 75%, according to federal data. The National Center for Health Statistics is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The patchy nature of this modern scourge may be due in part to how fentanyl has seeped into the drug supply. It first dominated the West and New England, but has spread across the country, Humphreys said, suggesting it and other synthetic drugs may chase less potent drugs over the next decade. Fentanyl, increasingly found in counterfeit pills bought online and made in labs, is easier to produce than herbal drugs, he said.
“There might not be a lot of heroin in 10 years because it’s all fentanyl,” Humphreys said. “What are you doing in a world where nobody needs a farm to make drugs anymore? »
Humphreys, who estimated there could be another million overdose deaths over the next decade if policy does not change, said there was no silver bullet to deal with the crisis multi-faceted. But one of the most effective ways to reduce overdoses, he said, is better access to naloxone, the drug to reverse opioid overdoses.
“I think of naloxone like fire extinguishers,” he said. “Usually they sit on a wall and they’re not needed. But when there’s a fire, there’s nothing like a fire extinguisher.
A stronger naloxone is on the way. The question is whether it is necessary.
In a first, the Biden administration presented a National Drug Control Strategy to Congress last month to lay out a roadmap to tackle untreated addiction and drug trafficking. The plan calls for an expansion of naloxone, drug test strips and syringe programs.
While the plan takes the right steps to mitigate the damage of the crisis, the damage is done, said Kasia Malinowska-Sempruch, director of drug policy for Open Society Foundations’ global programs. The upward trend in deaths will continue until insights trickle down to real-world policy regarding the communities hardest hit.
As part of his strategy to curb the flow of fentanyl into the country, Biden asked Congress in his budget for a $300 million increase in funding for the Customs and Border Protection agency and an increase in $300 million for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Last year, the DEA issued a rare public warning about the alarming amount of fake pills being purchased online that contain potentially deadly amounts of fentanyl.
Another challenge for the administration is to ensure that resources reach those who need them most, as the stigma of drugs has alienated some users.
Although treatment has intensified, it remains inaccessible to most of those it could help. Nearly 15% of people 12 or older needed substance abuse treatment in 2020, while 1.4% received it, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Additionally, Malinowska-Sempruch said Biden’s plan does not recommend some solutions that could help meet drug users where they are, such as decriminalizing personal possession and creating supervised injection sites, where trained monitors monitor users to intervene and counteract overdoses.
“It’s going to take a while before it can get better,” Malinowska-Sempruch said, “and it’s going to continue to cost lives.”
In the meantime, the Biden administration has ushered in “a new era of drug policy,” according to White House drug czar Rahul Gupta, who highlighted actions to make overdoses preventable, such as distributing of naloxone.
“It is unacceptable that we lose a life to an overdose every five minutes 24 hours a day,” Gupta said.