Overdose deaths in the United States have reached an all-time high.
More than 96,000 people died of drug overdoses during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic – that’s an increase of almost 30 percent in just one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s also the largest single-year increase in drug overdose deaths ever reported in the United States.
Erica Ernst, president, interim director and longtime volunteer at the Chicago Recovery Alliance, says that what the country is seeing now is not so much an opioid epidemic but an “overdose epidemic.”
However, provisional estimates from the Chicago Department of Public Health show that for the first half of 2021 opioid-related overdose deaths in Chicago actually dropped by 18% – making Chicago an outlier. Ernst says that’s likely because the city and state have done a good job of making the overdose reversal drug naloxone widely available in conjunction with providers of addiction services.
While drug usage has not increased dramatically, Ernst believes the overall number of overdose deaths nationwide has risen sharply because of the widespread availability of pills and other drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be up to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
“Almost every substance right now, we’ve heard of it having fentanyl in it except for marijuana or LSD. But anything like cocaine, meth and heroin – heroin is the big one – we are seeing very little actual heroin and much more fentanyl,” said Ernst.
Dr. Maria Torres, chair of the pain medicine division at Cook County Health and Hospital Systems, says that while fentanyl has been used for many years “the potency of it makes it extremely dangerous.”
And Torres says that using fentanyl in combination with other drugs can make it even more deadly.
“One plus one is not two in terms of the effects on the body,” said Torres. “The effects could be really amplified.”
According to Torres, the overdose withdrawal drug naloxone – sold under the brand name Narcan as a nasal spray – has been “truly a game-changer” in preventing overdose deaths.
But the pandemic has also meant more people may be using illegal drugs alone because “people are trying to be conscious about COVID and COVID risk,” said Ernst.
“We can distribute Narcan widely, but if someone is by themselves they can’t reverse their own overdose,” she added.