- The Washington Times - Friday, December 18, 2020

The U.S. has recorded its highest number of drug overdose deaths during a yearlong period, according to public health officials, as the country struggles to get a grip on the coronavirus pandemic that has upended millions of people’s lives.

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this week shows that more than 81,000 died from drug overdoses during a 12-month time frame ending in May.

Although overdose deaths were already increasing before the COVID-19 pandemic, the public health agency says the latest numbers suggest “an acceleration of overdose deaths” during the pandemic.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said in a statement Thursday. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

Synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, seem to be driving the increases in overdose deaths, according to the CDC, jumping more than 38% from the 12-month period ending June 2019 to the yearlong period ending in May.

Also during this period, 37 of 38 jurisdictions in the U.S. with relevant data reported increases in synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths with 18 of them reporting increases exceeding 50%. In addition, 10 western states reported an increase greater than 98% in synthetic opioid-involved deaths.

Overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by more than 26%, and the CDC says these deaths likely involve contaminated cocaine or cocaine mixed with fentanyl or heroin. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants such as methamphetamine climbed by nearly 35%.

In response to “substantial increases” in overdose deaths, the CDC issued a health advisory Thursday urging expanded distribution and use of naloxone, more education on overdose prevention, greater awareness about treatment options for substance use disorders, better detection of overdose outbreaks and earlier intervention for individuals deemed at high risk for overdose.

In 2018, the CDC reported 67,367 overdose deaths in the U.S., pinpointing synthetic opioids as the main driver. Opioids were involved in almost 70%, or 46,802, drug overdose deaths that year.

• Shen Wu Tan can be reached at stan@washingtontimes.com.

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