The CDC issued a Health Alert Network advisory to medical and public health professionals and others Thursday, saying drug overdose deaths have soared to the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period.
Approximately 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in the 12 months ending May 2020, with the largest spike after the COVID-19 public health emergency started, from March 2020 to May 2020.
Drug overdose deaths were rising before March, but the findings suggest they accelerated during COVID-19, the agency said.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, MD, in a statement. “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.”
The number of deaths increased 18.2% from the 12-month period ending in June 2019 to the 12-month period ending in May 2020 and appeared to be driven largely by deaths involving synthetic opioids like illicitly manufactured fentanyl, according to the CDC.
Of 38 jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data in the CDC’s analysis, 37 reported increases in synthetic opioid overdose deaths. Eighteen reported increases greater than 50%. Ten western states reported more than a 98% increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths.
Cocaine-related overdose deaths also increased by 26.5% in the 12-month period; these were likely connected to using cocaine together with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin, the CDC noted.
Overdose deaths involving stimulants like methamphetamine increased by 34.8% and exceeded the number of cocaine-involved deaths. These deaths have been increasing with and without synthetic opioid co-use and at a rate faster than overdose deaths involving cocaine, the agency said, noting the rise was consistent with the growth of methamphetamine in the illicit drug supply and increases in methamphetamine-related treatment admissions.
The advisory recommended that naloxone use and overdose education be expanded, that awareness and availability of treatment for substance use disorder be improved, and that drug overdose outbreaks and spikes be monitored more rapidly.
“The increase in overdose deaths is concerning,” said Deb Houry, MD, MPH, director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “CDC’s Injury Center continues to help and support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis. Our priority is to do everything we can to equip people on the ground to save lives in their communities.”