Pandemic fueled deadliest year for drug overdoses, CDC data shows

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Drug overdose deaths surged to a record high last year, according to new federal data that lays bare the deadly impact of the coronavirus pandemic’s disruption to drug abuse treatment and prevention efforts.

There were 93,331 reported deaths from overdoses in 2020, up from 70,980 the year before, marking the largest annual increase in at least 50 years, said officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Thursday. The preliminary numbers, which will be finalized later this year, underscore the challenge the Biden administration faces in confronting a resurgent drug crisis that’s been both fueled and overshadowed by the worst pandemic in a century.

“That is just an astounding number,” said Obama-era drug czar Michael Botticelli of the new mortality figures. “It takes my breath away, honestly.”

Nearly three-quarters of fatal overdoses were attributed to opioids, an increase from just over 70 percent in 2019 that was largely driven by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. Deaths from cocaine and methamphetamine also continued their years-long rise.

The CDC numbers were released one day after President Joe Biden nominated former West Virginia health commissioner Rahul Gupta to lead the federal response to the long-running drug crisis. Gupta, who is unlikely to be confirmed as the nation’s drug czar before the fall, is nationally recognized for the data-driven approach he brought to tackling drugs in West Virginia, one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic.

But health officials and experts worry that the political will to address the drug crisis has faded after the pandemic has consumed the public’s attention and exhausted public health departments.

“It’s not prioritized,” said Nora Volkow, the long-serving director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “Addiction is a neglected disease.”

Drug overdose deaths climbed each year for nearly three decades before they dipped slightly in 2018. At the time, there was cautious optimism that the tide was beginning to turn, as Congress invested billions of dollars in treatment and prevention. Now, it appears that 2018 was an aberration, said Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics.

“I guess it was just a fluke,” he said. “That’s what it looks like.”

Overdose deaths ticked up in 2019 and at the beginning of 2020, before accelerating again once the coronavirus emerged and caused major disruptions to everyday life.

Understaffed local health departments that had been leading prevention and recovery efforts shifted to testing and tracing the coronavirus. Social service programs that relied on outreach and in-person visits were shut down, while inpatient treatment centers reduced the number of people they accepted to meet social distancing rules. Outpatient centers tried to sustain operations through virtual visits.

“It wasn’t just the political leaders not paying attention, it was the circumstances around Covid,” said Chuck Ingoglia, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, a trade association for mental health and addiction treatment providers.

But drug policy experts fear that the all-consuming focus on Covid-19 has diverted energy from a problem that is spiraling out of control.

“We’ve taken our eye off the ball,” said Kevin Sabet, who previously worked at the White House drug office and founded Smart Approaches to Marijuana. “Drugs haven’t been a sexy enough issue, even though to tackle this unprecedented overdose crisis we need an all-hands-on-deck approach.”

Erin Banco contributed to this report.

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