Activists and the White House who were hoping that the decline in drug overdose deaths seen in 2018 – the first such decline in nearly three decades – might have continued into 2019 are about to be disappointed.
Yesterday, the CDC released its preliminary data on drug overdose deaths (the final report won’t land until December), and the organization found that the total for 2019 was 5% higher than the total from 2018. The data also topped the 2017 total, the last record number for annual overdose deaths, by just a few hundred deaths to mark a new annual record for drug-related deaths in the US.
Nearly 71,000 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, per the CDC data. 70,980 died last year, per the preliminary data. That’s compared with 70,699 from 2017, the last record high, the CDC reports.
Soaring overdose deaths in the US have helped drag down average life expectancy for 3 straight years, and by the looks of it, No. 4 might be right around the corner.
Opioids led the pack once again, thanks largely to the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl. So far this year, deaths are on track to surpass their totals from last year.
Drug deaths have risen an average of 13 percent so far this year over last year, according to mortality data from local and state governments collected by The New York Times, covering 40 percent of the U.S. population. If this trend continues for the rest of the year, it will be the sharpest increase in annual drug deaths since 2016, when a class of synthetic opioids known as fentanyls first made significant inroads in the country’s illicit drug supply.
One of the most important trends, per the NYT, is the fact that deadly fentanyl is moving west.
Fentanyl had been confined mostly to New England and other parts of the East, where it was generally found as an adulterant in powdered heroin. But in recent years, fentanyl and other potent synthetic opioids have been blamed for an increasing number of overdose deaths in California, Arizona and other Western states.
Ironically, the New York Times reported that the number of drug-related deaths has probably continued to climb in 2020 as the pandemic cuts off access to needle-exchange vans and other resources that hand out fresh needles and the overdose-reversal medication naloxone.
With the pandemic disrupting treatment centers, syringe exchanges and other places that help people with drug addiction, there may also be less naloxone — the overdose-reversing medication that has brought back thousands from the brink of death — on the streets. And there is at least anecdotal evidence that with the nation’s borders closed because of the pandemic, the illicit drug supply has been disrupted and has become less predictable. Constant changes in potency make it harder for people to judge the strength of the drugs they’re using.
“The inconsistency of our drug supply right now is at an all-time high,” said Chad Sabora, the co-founder and executive director of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery.
Here’s how the number of drug deaths changed across the country. While the northeast (with the notable exception of hard-hit Connecticut) has seen drug deaths ebb, the midwest and the mountain west are still in trouble.
The biggest percentage increase across the US was found in South Dakota, with a more than 50% increase (though, keep in mind, it’s South Dakota, so percentage change isn’t as meaningful as the overall number of new cases.