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Opioid Overdose Deaths Surge During COVID-19 Pandemic, Alarming Health Officials

The number of Americans dying from opioid overdoses surged dramatically in 2020 while the coronavirus pandemic was raging, causing alarm among public health officials and setting the stage for an increase in opioid litigation.

More than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the 12 months ended May 2020, according to provisional data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

That’s the highest figure ever recorded for a 12-month period, and many public health officials were bracing for ongoing increases in opioid deaths as people with substance abuse disorders struggle to cope with remote work, overseeing their children’s virtual schools, financial worries and other stressors.

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D., said in a press release issued in late 2020 when the new data was made available.

“As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways,” Redfield said. “We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

Synthetic opioid drugs, such as illicitly made fentanyl, were the main driver behind the overdose deaths with a 38% increase in the 12 months ending in May 2020, CDC data show. Methamphetamine and cocaine overdoses were the other leading causes in overdose deaths.

All but one of the 38 jurisdictions that track synthetic opioid data in the United States reported higher deaths from fentanyl and other synthetics, government data show.

Health care providers, payers and public health officials are working to expand distribution and availability of opioid overdose reversal drugs such as naloxone while also trying to increase awareness and access to substance abuse treatment programs.

A combination of science, evidence-based outcomes and compassion must guide patient care as well as policy, according to Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, who is the immediate past president of the American Medical Association.

“It is imperative that we continue to talk about other health issues that are impacting our nation,” Dr. Harris said in a statement after the CDC data on overdose deaths was released.

“We are appropriately focused on COVID, it is still top of mind for most people, and it’s understandable that we can lose focus on other issues,” she said. “But we still have to make sure we are focused on the overdose epidemic that we continue to experience in this country.”