Fatal drug overdoses spiked to record highs last year in states across the United States, with pandemic-driven isolation and loss of routine the likely factor behind the surge in deaths.
State-level fatal drug overdose data covering the 12-month period ending in September 2020, the closest proxy available for last year as a whole, show drug deaths surged at least 26.8 percent in the United States, with the District of Columbia up 56.8 percent, Louisiana 53.2 percent, Kentucky 49.2 percent, and West Virginia 49.0 percent, according to incomplete data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
According to new preliminary data from the Washington Department of Health, there were 1,649 overdose deaths in 2020, nearly 31 percent more than the year prior and a figure twice as large as any other year in the past decade.
“It is reasonable to believe the psychological, social, and economic impacts of COVID-19 led to an increase in drug use,” said Kristen Maki, a spokesperson for the state Department of Health, reported The Seattle Times.
The CDC’s fatal drug overdose figures for Washington state, which don’t capture the final three months of 2020, show 1,563 reported drug deaths for the 12 months ending in September of last year, a 29 percent increase. If Washington state’s newly released Department of Health figures for the whole of 2020 are extrapolated to other states, it is likely that the percentages will rise as the CDC releases updated figures later this year, and the picture will look even more grim.
The preliminary drug overdose death data released by the CDC also shows that in the 12-month period ending in September 2020 there were 87,203 drug-related deaths nationwide, an all-time high compared to 68,757 fatal drug overdoses for the 12 months ending September 2019.
A plot of year-over-year drug overdose deaths in the United States shows the numbers were relatively flat between mid-2016 and April 2020—when pandemic lockdowns were widely imposed—before rising sharply.
CDC Director Robert Redfield commented on the rising trend in December, when the CDC announced that the number of deaths for the 12 months ending in May 2020 had risen by 18 percent year-over-year.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” Redfield said 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,” he added.
Other states with significant rises in fatal drug overdoses for the year ending in September 2020 include Colorado (42.4 percent), South Carolina (41.6 percent), Tennessee (40.9 percent), and Florida (40.8 percent).
The only state to see a drop was South Dakota, where drug overdose deaths fell by nearly 5 percent year-over-year. South Dakota never implemented a state-wide lockdown or mask requirement.