Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to recent provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D. “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 (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths, increasing 38.4 percent from the 12-month period leading up to June 2019 compared with the 12-month period leading up to May 2020. During this time period:
- 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths.
- 18 of these jurisdictions reported increases greater than 50 percent.
- 10 western states reported over a 98 percent increase in synthetic opioid-involved deaths.
Overdose deaths involving cocaine also increased by 26.5 percent. Based upon earlier research, these deaths are likely linked to co-use or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased by 34.8 percent. The number of deaths involving psychostimulants now exceeds the number of cocaine-involved deaths.
“The increase in overdose deaths is concerning.” said Deb Houry, M.D., M.P.H., director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “CDC’s Injury Center continues to help and support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis. Our priority is to do everything we can to equip people on the ground to save lives in their communities.”
The increase in overdose deaths highlights the need for essential services to remain accessible for people most at risk of overdose and the need to expand prevention and response activities. CDC issued a health advisory today to medical and public health professionals, first responders, harm reduction organizations, and other community partners recommending the following actions as appropriate based on local needs and characteristics:
- Expand distribution and use of naloxone and overdose prevention education.
- Expand awareness about and access to and availability of treatment for substance use disorders.
- Intervene early with individuals at highest risk for overdose.
- Improve detection of overdose outbreaks to facilitate more effective response.
What CDC is doing
Measures taken at the national, state, and local level to address the COVID-19 pandemic may have unintended consequences for substance use and overdose, but CDC is working with states, territories, tribes, cities, and counties across the country to continue drug overdose surveillance and prevention efforts. This includes assessing overdose data to understand trends, as well as working with funded jurisdictions to provide flexibilities where needed and technical assistance to identify strategies to inform public health action during the COVID-19 pandemic.
CDC began a multiyear Overdose Data to Action cooperative agreement in September 2019 and funds health departments in 47 states; Washington, D.C.; two territories; and 16 cities and counties for drug overdose surveillance and prevention efforts. Funds awarded as part of this agreement support health departments in obtaining high quality, more comprehensive, and timelier data on overdose morbidity and mortality and using those data to inform prevention and response efforts.
CDC is committed to preventing opioid and other drug misuse, overdoses, and deaths through five key strategies:
- Using data to monitor emerging trends and direct prevention activities;
- Strengthening state, local, and tribal capacity to respond to the epidemic;
- Working with providers, health systems, and payers to reduce unsafe exposure to opioids and treat addiction;
- Coordinating with public safety and community-based partners to rapidly identify overdose threats, reverse overdoses, link people to effective treatment, and reduce harms associated with illicit opioids; and
- Increasing public awareness about the risks of opioids.
Learn more about what CDC is doing to prevent opioid-related deaths on CDC’s Efforts to Prevent Opioid Overdoses and Other Opioid-Related Harms webpage.
What you can do
Not all overdoses have to end in death. Everyone has a role to play.
- Learn about the risks of opioids.
- Learn about naloxone, its availability, and how to use it.
- Help people struggling with opioid use disorder to find the right care and treatment.
- Learn more about CDC’s overdose surveillance and prevention efforts in your community
Learn more about what may help if you or someone you care about is increasing drug use during the COVID-19 pandemic.