Drug Overdose Deaths Hit 'Chilling' Numbers in 2020 Amid COVID-19 Pandemic, According to CDC Data


Back in December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that drug overdose deaths were "accelerating" in the US. Now, the early numbers are in—and they're devastating.

The CDC released on Wednesday a provisional count on drug overdose deaths in the US in 2020, and it's the highest number ever recorded. There were 92,183 drug overdose deaths in 2020, an increase of nearly 30%, according to the data.

Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl and psychostimulants like methamphetamine increased in 2020 compared to the previous year. So did deaths from cocaine and prescription pain medication.

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Drug overdose deaths rose in all but two states—South Dakota and New Hampshire—while increases were especially high in the southern and western parts of the country.

"This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, and the largest increase since at least 1999," Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), said in a statement to CNN. "These data are chilling. The COVID-19 pandemic created a devastating collision of health crises in America."

The CDC will provide final estimates in a few months, according to The New York Times, given that overdose death investigations depend on toxicology reports and other testing that take time.

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The CDC made it clear back in December that drug overdose deaths were trending in the wrong direction. "The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard," said then-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."

Synthetic opioids like fentanyl were the biggest driver of the increase in deaths, jumping up 38.4% from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 compared with the 12-month period leading up to May 2020. During that time, the CDC reported that:

  • 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths.
  • 18 of those jurisdictions said there were increases of at least 50%.
  • 10 western states reported an over 98% increase in deaths involving synthetic opioids.

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Overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 26.5% which the CDC said was likely linked to contamination of cocaine with fentanyl or heroin.

There was one drug overdose death in every 100,000 Americans reported in the U.S. in 1970, per CDC data. As of 2006, that number was 8.5 in 100,000.

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance abuse, you can call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for confidential free help to find treatment options and information.

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