Federal researchers have revealed that Americans died of drug overdoses in record numbers across the US as the pandemic began to spread across the country last year.
In the 12 month period that ended in April of 2021, nearly 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to data released by the National Center for Health Statistics. That number went up nearly 30 percent from he year prior, which recorded nearly 78,000 deaths.
According to The New York Times, "The figure marks the first time the number of overdose deaths in the United States has exceeded 100,000 a year, more than the toll of car crashes and guns combined. Overdose deaths have more than doubled since 2015."
On Wednesday, administration officials stated that they will expand access to opioid overdose reversing drugs like Naloxone by strongly encouraging state officials to pass laws that give a wider access to the drug, and by promoting its use to all Americans.
"I believe that no one should die of an overdose simply because they didn't have access to Naloxone," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of National Drug Control Policy. "Sadly, today that is happening across the country, and access to naloxone often depends a great deal on where you live."
The rise in drug overdose deaths was fueled by many factors, including the widespread use of Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 100 times more powerful than morphine, a breakdown in social support, and a loss of treatment due to shortages of medical workers.
The rise in Fentanyl-associated deaths came in part due to users unknowingly ingesting the powerful drug, with Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse stating that while some users sought out the drug, others "may not have wanted to take it. But that is what is being sold, and the risk of overdose is very high."
"Many people are dying without knowing what they are ingesting," she added.
She noted that those in recovery or struggling with addiction are prone to relapsing, with the initial pandemic lockdowns separating support systems and the rise of mental health disorders creating the unfortunately perfect conditions for relapses to occur.
Treatment for substance abuse disorders were also postponed in the early days of the pandemic, as health care providers struggled to serve the overwhelming surge in COVID-19 patients, and many lesser health treatments being pushed off to free up workers.
President and chief executive of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation Dr. Joseph Lee said that community and social support that was lost during the pandemic, along with the closing of schools, contributed to rising deaths. "We're seeing a lot of people who delayed getting help, and who seem to be more sick."
A large portion of these drug overdoses, around 70 percent, occurred in men between the ages of 25 and 54. The largest year-over-year increases occurred in California, Tennessee, Louisiana, Mississippi, West Virginia and Kentucky, exceeding 50 percent.
"Increases of about 40 percent or greater were seen in Washington State, Oregon, Nevada, Colorado, Minnesota, Alaska, Nebraska, Virginia and the Carolinas. Deaths actually dropped in New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota," wrote The New York Times.
"If we had talked a year ago, I would have told you, 'Deaths are skyrocketing.' But I would not have guessed it would get to this," said Dr. Andrew Kolodny, medical director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management.
Included in President Biden's American Rescue Plan Act that passed in March of 2021 is $1.5 billion in funding for the prevention and treatment of substance use disorders, and an additional $30 million to fund local services for those struggling.
These federal funds can now be used to purchase rapid fentanyl test strips, which are used to test for traces of the strong opioid in people's drugs.
Some critics though argue that the response has not gone far enough to address the public health emergency. Some argue that new funding for universal access to treatment, as well as new treatment centers in every county offering same-day services is necessary.
Physicians are still required to get federal permission to prescribe buprenorphine, a first-line treatment for opioid use disorder, which limits the number of providers.
"If you really want to see deaths comes down, you have to make it much easier for someone who is addicted to opioids to access treatment, particularly with buprenorphine," Dr. Kolodny said.
"It has to be easier to get treatment than to buy a bag of dope," he added.