Nation records more than 100,000 fatalities over 12 months for first time
The U.S. recorded its highest number of drug-overdose deaths in a 12-month period, surpassing 100,000 for the first time in the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There were an estimated 100,306 drug deaths in the 12 months running through April, the latest CDC data show. This marks a nearly 29% rise from the deaths recorded in the same period a year earlier, indicating the U.S. is heading for another full-year record after drug deaths soared during the Covid-19 pandemic.
“It’s telling us that 2021 looks like it will be worse than 2020,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.
Opioid-related deaths, mainly fueled by bootleg versions of the potent drug fentanyl, accounted for about three quarters of the deaths through April, according to the CDC, which counts provisional drug deaths in yearlong blocks. These records take months to compile because drug overdoses typically require local death investigations and toxicology tests.
Fentanyl has for years been a major catalyst in an intensifying U.S. overdose crisis. The nation was reporting fewer than 50,000 fatal overdoses as recently as 2014. In 2020, the number surged to a record of about 93,330.
The pandemic intensified opioid problems in many ways, from increasing isolation among people trying to maintain their sobriety to complicating treatment, according to advocates for drug users and those in recovery. The pandemic has also been a major draw on resources and attention for public health authorities, who are still trying to manage Covid-19.
Shelley Strunk Knop said her fiancé died from a suspected fentanyl overdose in August. Jeff Manuel, who was 55 years old, started taking prescription opioids following back surgery in 2008, and that led to heroin after the government raised some hurdles to pain drugs to try to combat their abuse, she said. He hadn’t used for at least two years, she said, until he relapsed after a knee injury this summer.
“It’s like playing Russian roulette,” she said. “People need to be aware. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through in my life.”
Illicit fentanyl is often made by drug cartels in Mexico with chemicals from China, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. While fentanyl hit hard in places like New England, Appalachian and Midwest states several years ago, the drug is a fast-growing problem in western parts of the U.S. now, too.
The DEA recently warned of a proliferation in fake pills containing fentanyl, which can lead to fatal poisonings among people who don’t know they are taking the powerful opioid. Fentanyl can be 50 times more powerful than heroin and is often pressed into pills designed to look like other kinds of prescription drugs, which means someone who has no built-up tolerance could be accidentally exposed to fentanyl.
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