Health

Overdose Deaths Hit Record High In 2020 Amid Pandemic Health Care Disruptions

(Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

Dylan Housman Healthcare Reporter
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Drug overdose deaths surged to a record high in 2020 amid health care disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, new preliminary Centers for Disease Control data shows.

93,331 drug overdose deaths were reported in the United States in 2020, according to the CDC. The one-year increase of more than 31% is the largest to afflict the nation in at least fifty years.

Deaths caused by cocaine and methamphetamine were up in 2020, but opioids remained the overwhelming driver of overdose deaths, accounting for about three-quarters of the total. The share of overdoses tied to opioids ticked up slightly from about 70% in 2019.

Political attention on America’s ongoing opioid crisis has waned in recent years, particularly once the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. “It’s not prioritized… addiction is a neglected disease,” director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse Nora Volkow told Politico.

Overdose deaths have risen every year going back to the 1990s with the exception of a slight downturn in 2018. Officials across the country began making greater investments in combatting the crisis around that time, but much of that work was held up by COVID-19 restrictions.

Local health departments are largely responsible for anti-drug programs, but they were overrun in 2020 by responsibilities for testing and tracing COVID-19. In 2021, that focus shifted heavily toward distributing vaccines to end the pandemic.

“It wasn’t just the political leaders not paying attention, it was the circumstances around Covid,” president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health Chuck Ingoglia told Politico. (RELATED: Drug Exec Who Called Opioid Addicts ‘Pillbillies’ Won’t Be Disciplined, Company Says)

The pandemic also contributed to mental health deterioration that is often associated with drug addiction, according to some experts. “It’s about isolation, about disruption in life, and maybe exacerbation of mental-health symptoms,” said Adam Maslowski, clinical coordinator for outpatient services for Long Island’s Phoenix House, to The Wall Street Journal.

“A lot of people love Zoom, but there is something about face to face contact,” he added.

This week, President Joe Biden tapped Dr. Rahul Gupta, formerly West Virginia’s top healthcare official, to lead his administrations opioid crisis efforts. While state leaders like Gupta have pioneered programs in helping addicts fight their disease, attorneys general across the country have been aggressively using litigation to punish drug companies that have contributed to the crisis. (RELATED: ‘They Have Their Heads In The Ground’: TX Gov. Abbott Blames ‘Open Border’ Biden For Surge Of Fentanyl)

Meanwhile, at the southern border, Fentanyl seizures are reaching record levels as the Biden administration struggles to deal with the ongoing border crisis. CDC officials said the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, is a key factor in skyrocketing overdose deaths.