Spurred by pandemic, US drug deaths surpass 100,000 for first time

The surge in overdose deaths reflects two factors - pandemic disruptions have caused intense stress for many people and the illegal drug supply out on the streets has become deadlier. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (REUTERS) - More Americans than ever before died from drug overdoses over a 12-month period, according to federal data released on Wednesday (Nov 17), as the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted medical care and increased mental health woes.

More lethal drugs have also flooded the streets.

The record of more than 100,000 overdose deaths between April 2020 and April 2021, which US President Joe Biden called "a tragic milestone", represents a 28.5 per cent jump from the previous 12 months, according to data from the United States Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

The Biden administration said it would push states to enact laws making it easier for people to get access to naloxone, a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses.

"No one should die from an overdose, and naloxone is one of the most effective tools we have to save lives," said Dr Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Mr Biden said in a statement that even as the country battles against the Covid-19 pandemic, "we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss" from drug overdose deaths.

Dr Joshua Sharfstein, director of the American Health Initiative at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, which focuses on addictions and overdose, said the peak of drug deaths hit in the spring of 2020, early in the pandemic.

He expects the year-on-year overdose data to begin falling with July figures, but not by much.

"This is a momentous tragedy hidden by the pandemic," Dr Sharfstein said. "It's heartbreaking how many families have been affected by an overdose this year."

He said the surge in overdose deaths reflects two factors, the first directly connected to pandemic disruptions that caused intense stress for many people.

"A lot of (drug addiction) programmes had to close or reduce their hours or otherwise become less accessible during the pandemic," Dr Sharfstein said. "So even as there was much more need, there was less access to care in many places."

The second is that the illegal drug supply out on the streets has become deadlier. That is mostly due to widespread availability of fentanyl, which can be 100 times more potent than morphine and is increasingly being mixed with other drugs, such as cocaine, without users knowing, as drug suppliers seek to boost their effects.

Even minuscule amounts of fentanyl make the drugs far more dangerous.

Dr Sharfstein and other public health experts are calling on governments at all levels to take the overdose epidemic as seriously as they have confronted Covid-19, and to invest more in treatments proven to work, like naloxone, and in real-time data that tracks when and where overdoses are flaring up.

Data in July showed that last year's drug overdoses jumped 30 per cent as pandemic lockdowns made getting treatment difficult and dealers laced more drugs with fentanyl or copycat versions of the potent opioid.

The American states with the biggest percentage spike in overdose deaths were Vermont at 70 per cent, followed by West Virginia (62.2 per cent) and Kentucky (54.5 per cent). California, the most populous state, saw its overdoses climb nearly 47.8 per cent.

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