(New York) — An estimated 100,000 Americans have died of drug overdoses in one year, an unprecedented milestone that health officials say is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic and a much more dangerous drug supply.
Overdose deaths have been on the rise for more than two decades, have accelerated in the past two years, and according to new data published Wednesday, have jumped nearly 30% in the last year.
Experts believe the main drivers are the increasing prevalence of the deadly fentanyl in the illicit drug supply and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many drug users socially isolated and unable to obtain treatment or other support.
The number is “devastating,” said Kathryn Keys, a Columbia University expert on substance abuse issues. “It’s an amount of overdose death that we haven’t seen in this country.”
Drug overdoses now exceed deaths from car accidents, guns, and even influenza and pneumonia. It is approaching the total number of diabetes, the seventh cause of death in the country.
Relying on the latest available death certificate data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that 100,300 Americans died from drug overdoses from May 2020 to April 2021. This is not an official statistic. It can take several months for investigations into drug deaths to be final, so the agency has prepared the estimate based on the 98,000 reports it has received so far.
The Centers for Disease Control previously reported that there were about 93,000 deaths from overdose in 2020, the highest number recorded in a calendar year. Robert Anderson, chief of mortality statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the 2021 tally is likely to exceed 100,000.
Dr. Daniel Cicaroni, a drug policy expert at the University of California, San Francisco, agrees that “2021 will be horrific.”
New data shows that many of the deaths are related to illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that overtook heroin five years ago as the drug responsible for most overdose deaths. Traders have mixed fentanyl with other drugs – one of the reasons for the high death rates from methamphetamine and cocaine abuse.
The CDC has not yet accounted for the racial and ethnic divisions of overdose victims.
It found that the estimated death toll rose in all but four states — Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota — compared to the same period last year. The states with the largest increase were Vermont (70%), West Virginia (62%) and Kentucky (55%).
Minnesota saw an increase of about 39%, with estimated overdose deaths rising to 1,188 in May 2020 through April 2021 from 858 in the previous 12-month period.
Police Lt. Jeff Warsal, who leads a regional drug task force, said the area around Mankato has seen overdose deaths rise from two in 2019, to six last year to 16 so far this year.
“I honestly don’t see it getting any better, not soon,” he said.
Among the year’s victims was Travis Gustafson, who died in February at the age of 21 in Mankato. Warsal said his blood found signs of fentanyl, heroin, marijuana, and the tranquilizer Xanax.
His grandmother, Nancy Sack, said Gustafson was close to his mother, two brothers, and the rest of his family.
She said he was known for his easy-going smile. “He would have cried when he was a little man, but if someone smiled at him, he immediately stopped crying and smiled again,” she recalls.
Sack said Gustafson first tried drugs as a child and was being treated for drug abuse as a teen. She said he was suffering from anxiety and depression, but used mainly marijuana and different types of pills.
Sack said that on the morning of his death, Gustafson had a tooth extracted, but that he was not prescribed strong painkillers due to his history of substance abuse. He told his mother he would stay home and get rid of the pain with ibuprofen. She said he was expecting a visit from his girlfriend that night to see a movie.
But Gustafson called Max Leo Miller, also 21, who gave him a bag containing heroin and fentanyl, according to police.
Some details of what happened are disputed, but all accounts indicate that Gustafson was new to heroin and fentanyl.
Police say Gustafson and Miller exchanged messages on social media. At one point, Gustafson sent a picture of a streak of white matter on a brown table and asked him if he was taking the right amount and then wrote “or bigger?”
According to the police report, Miller replied, “Younger brothers” and “Be careful please!”