Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. reached another record high in 2020 at more than 91,000, according to new government figures, far exceeding totals for the previous year.
Data released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics shows increases in drug overdose deaths among both men and women, across all racial and ethnic populations, and among all ages 15 and older for the year.
Estimates based on provisional data back in July indicated more than 93,000 drug overdose deaths had occurred in 2020. Though the final total of 91,799 fell short of that earlier tally, it still represents a 30% increase over the more than 70,000 deaths that occurred in 2019.
The age-adjusted drug overdose mortality rate increased by 31% in 2020, from 21.6 deaths per 100,000 standard population in 2019 to 28.3 per 100,000. Overdose deaths among men rose by 33% from nearly 48,000 in 2019 to 63,728 in 2020, while deaths among women increased by 23% from nearly 23,000 to 28,071 during the same period.
Across racial and ethnic lines, the report found American Indians or Alaska Natives continued to have the highest drug overdose death rate in 2020 at 42.5 deaths per 100,000. Yet the largest percentage increases were seen among Black individuals – for whom the death rate rose by 44%, from 24.8 per 100,000 in 2019 to 35.8 per 100,000 in 2020 – and among Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, where the rate also increased by 44% from 9.5 per 100,000 to 13.7 per 100,000.
By comparison, the fatal overdose rate among whites rose by 26%, the rate among Hispanics rose by more than 38% and the rate among American Indians and Alaska Natives rose by 39%. The rate among Asians also rose by 39%.
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl but excluding methadone, continued to be the primary driver of drug overdose deaths, with fatal overdoses involving such substances accounting for more than 60% of drug fatalities in 2020. The death rate tied to synthetic opioids rose 56% from 2019 to 2020, while the mortality rate increased for nearly all drugs studied in the report, including cocaine, methadone, semisynthetic and natural opioids like morphine and oxycodone, and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine.
The death rate from overdoses involving heroin saw the only decrease, dropping by nearly 7% from 4.4 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2019 to 4.1 deaths.
The report’s findings highlight the profound impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the country’s opioid epidemic. Last month, provisional data from the CDC showed that the U.S. reached a record number of drug overdose deaths within a 12-month period, exceeding 100,000 by April 2021.
Some evidence points to a possible uptick in the number of individuals who started using drugs since the beginning of the pandemic. Survey results from more than 5,400 adults in late June 2020 found 13% of respondents reporting they had started or increased substance use to cope with the stress or emotions related to COVID-19.
Many experts believe, however, the increase in drug overdose deaths is mostly tied to those who were already struggling with substance use issues before the pandemic, as treatment disruptions and isolation after distancing measures were imposed to stem the spread of the virus may have increased the risk of relapse.
A spokesman for the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration says since early 2020, the agency has worked along with other federal agencies to expand coverage for substance use disorder services through telehealth to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on addiction treatment services.
The Department of Health and Human Services also issued guidelines in April relaxing restrictions on clinical practitioners who can prescribe the addiction treatment medication buprenorphine, the spokesman notes.