U.S. overdose deaths hit an all-time high


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that an estimated 100,306 Americans died from drug overdoses during the period from April 2020 to April 2021, a 28.5% increase from the previous year.

Deaths in some states rose even more precipitously. Vermont saw an almost 70% increase, and drug overdose deaths in West Virginia increased by 62%. Many states, including Alabama, California, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Washington, had a 45%-50% rise in overdose deaths.

The data released by the CDC was provisional, as there is generally a lag between a reported overdose and confirmation of the death to the National Vital Statistics System. The agency uses statistical models that render the counts almost 100% accurate, the CDC says.

The vast majority (73,757) of overdose deaths involved opioids – with most of those (62,338) involving synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Federal officials said that one American died every 5 minutes from an overdose, or 265 a day.

“We have to acknowledge what this is – it is a crisis,” Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra told reporters on a call.

“As much as the numbers speak so vividly, they don’t tell the whole story. We see it in the faces of grieving families and all those overworked caregivers. You hear it every time you get that panicked 911 phone call, you read it in obituaries of sons and daughters who left us way too soon,” Mr. Becerra said.

Rahul Gupta, MD, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said that “this is unacceptable, and it requires an unprecedented response.”

Dr. Gupta, who noted that he has a waiver to treat substance use disorder patients with buprenorphine, said he’s seen “first-hand the heartbreak of the overdose epidemic,” adding that, with 23 years in practice, “I’ve learned that an overdose is a cry for help and for far too many people that cry goes unanswered.”

Both Mr. Becerra and Dr. Gupta called on Congress to pass President Joe Biden’s fiscal 2022 budget request, noting that it calls for $41 billion – a $669 million increase from fiscal year 2021 – to go to agencies working on drug interdiction and substance use prevention, treatment, and recovery support.

Dr. Gupta also announced that the administration was releasing a model law that could be used by state legislatures to help standardize policies on making the overdose antidote naloxone more accessible. Currently, such policies are a patchwork across the nation.

In addition, the federal government is newly supporting harm reduction, Mr. Becerra said. This means federal money can be used by clinics and outreach programs to buy fentanyl test strips, which they can then distribute to drug users.

“It’s important for Americans to have the ability to make sure that they can test for fentanyl in the substance,” Dr. Gupta said.

Fake pills, fentanyl a huge issue

Federal officials said that both fentanyl and methamphetamine are contributing to rising numbers of fatalities.

“Drug cartels in Mexico are mass-producing fentanyl and methamphetamine largely sourced from chemicals in China and they are distributing these substances throughout the United States,” Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration, said on the call.

Ms. Milgram said the agency had seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl in 2021, enough to provide every American with a lethal dose. Fentanyl is also mixed in with cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, and marijuana – often in counterfeit pills, Ms. Milgram said.

The DEA and other law enforcement agencies have seized more than 14 million such pills in 2021. “These types of pills are easily accessible today on social media and e-commerce platforms, Ms. Milgram said.

“Drug dealers are now in our homes,” she said. “Wherever there is a smart phone or a computer, a dealer is one click away,” Ms. Milgram said.

Dr. Nora D. Volkow

Dr. Nora D. Volkow

National Institute on Drug Abuse Director Nora D. Volkow, MD, said that dealers will continue to push both fentanyl and methamphetamine because they are among the most addictive substances. They also are more profitable because they don’t require cultivation and harvesting, she said on the call.

Dr. Volkow also noted that naloxone is not as effective in reversing fentanyl overdoses because fentanyl is more potent than heroin and other opioids, and “it gets into the brain extremely rapidly.”

Ongoing research is aimed at developing a faster delivery mechanism and a longer-lasting formulation to counter overdoses, Dr. Volkow said.

A version of this article first appeared on Medscape.com.

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