The United States is on pace to see its highest number of overdose deaths ever since record keeping began.
Between October 2019 and October 2020, 74,000 overdose deaths were reported in the country, up from 68,000 during the same time period the previous year.
In local municipalities, the numbers are even more staggering as many cities already surpassed their 2019 numbers through the first nine months of this year, and experts say the pandemic is only fueling the rise.
The Associated Press analyzed preliminary overdose statistics in nine states across the country: Colorado, Kentucky, Texas, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Missouri, Rhode Island, New Jersey, and Washington. All of the states showed marked increases in overdose numbers from 2019 to 2020.
In Colorado, for example, overdose deaths increased by 28%. In Denver, specifically, that rise was being fueled by the opiate fentanyl, which has been trafficked more across the U.S. Mexico border during the pandemic due to its strength.
According to Denver’s Medical Examiner’s Office, fentanyl deaths increased tenfold between 2018 and 2020. In 2019, the city reported 56 overdoses from the drug. Through October of this year, that number has skyrocketed to 108.
“Drug overdoses are exceeding every metric that we’ve seen for the last decade,” said Dr. Jim Caruso, who is the coroner for the City and County of Denver. “We have had fentanyl related deaths in individuals as young as nine years old. Kids are always tough and they’ve been tough my whole career because you’re looking at the most lost years of productive life.”
Dr. Ken Leonard is the Director of the Research Institute on Addictions at the University of Buffalo and says since the start of the pandemic, overdose deaths have only increased at a faster rate, particularly among those with existing drug issues.
According to the AP’s analysis, deaths in all nine states peaked in either April or May, just after the tightest stages of quarantine began.
Dr. Leonard says the economic consequences of the pandemic forced many drug treatment centers to either furlough or cut employees to save money, affecting accessibility to treatment. He says the isolation from support networks during quarantine may have also played a role in the rise.
“The pandemic and the isolation, for a lot of people the unemployment, it all creates a tremendous amount of stress,” said Leonard.
Because it takes months to tabulate national overdose death numbers, the true extent of what is happening may not be known until next year, despite early indicators that we are already in the midst of an unprecedented drug epidemic taking place during this pandemic.