US Overdose Deaths Have Hit an All-Time High Due to ‘Perfect Storm’

Fatal overdoses surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period, according to a new CDC report.
Manisha Krishnan
Toronto, CA
November 17, 2021, 3:00pm
Overdose prevention activist new york
Over 200 overdose prevention activists staged a protest on August 28, 2019 at Governor Andrew Cuomo's NYC office. Photo by Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have hit a record high, with more than 100,000 people dying in a 12-month period, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

The report, released Wednesday morning and based on provisional data, found that 100,306 people died of drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021—an increase of 28.5 percent from the same period the year before. The majority of deaths (75,673) were linked to opioids. This is the first time drug poisoning deaths surpassed 100,000 in a 12-month period.

Advertisement

“That’s a horrible tragic number to have surpassed but it’s unfortunately something I did expect to see,” Claire Zagorski, program coordinator at the Pharmacy Addictions Research and Medicine Program at the University of Texas at Austin. 

The report found that fatal overdoses from synthetic opioids like fentanyl—which is up to 50 times more powerful than heroin—were up, accounting for around 64 percent of deaths; deaths tied to methamphetamines and cocaine also increased. 

Last year was the deadliest year on record for overdoses in the U.S., with more than 93,000 deaths. More than 60 percent of them were linked to fentanyl. The only states in which overdose deaths didn’t increase were South Dakota and New Hampshire. 

Experts have told VICE News one factor that explains the spike in overdoses is the prevalence of fentanyl in illicit drug markets. Fentanyl is increasingly being cut into or completely replacing heroin in the former heroin strongholds of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Ohio, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia—a trend that’s unlikely to reverse because fentanyl is easier and cheaper to make and import than heroin. 

Zagorski said COVID and working from home hitting as drug-poisoning deaths were already on the rise created a “perfect storm;” people are more at risk of dying when using drugs alone, she said. 

Advertisement

The pandemic has also made it harder for people to access health care and drugs like methadone and Suboxone used to treat opioid addictions, she added. 

Zagorski said disruptions in the global supply chain have accelerated the push towards unpredictable and highly powerful synthetic drugs in the illicit market. 

Fentanyl analogues—drugs that produce a similar effect but can be much more potent—are also becoming more common, as is fentanyl that’s been adulterated with other substances, such as tranquilizers. 

Zagorski said the volatility of the drug market makes a strong case for giving people access to a safe supply of drugs, including prescription heroin, so they know exactly what they’re taking. 

Drug users can take a number of steps to keep themselves safer, including not using alone; carrying and knowing how to use naloxone, which can reverse opioid overdoses; and getting their drugs tested. At-home testing strips are available through dancesafe.org.

People using drugs alone can call the Never Use Alone hotline at 1-800-484-3731, and someone will stay on the line. 

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.