The number of U.S. overdose deaths hit a new high, topping 95,000 in the 12 months ending in January, according to provisional data from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nationwide, that’s a 31% increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic compared with the year before, fueled largely by the presence of the potent opioid fentanyl in heroin, methamphetamines and other illicit drugs.
The jump in the number of drug deaths exceeded 50% in six states: Vermont (65%), Kentucky (59%), South Carolina (54%), Louisiana (52%), West Virginia (52%) and California (50%).
The death toll is likely to worsen in the weeks and months ahead. Nonprofits and first responders who use the overdose antidote naloxone to rescue people from fatal overdoses reported critical shortages of the drug earlier this month, according to The Washington Post and other media outlets. Pfizer, the manufacturer that produces naloxone, said it hit a production snag and wouldn’t be able to replenish supplies until the fall.
Responding to the CDC’s grim announcement, Regina LaBelle, the White House’s acting director of national drug control policy, said in a statement this week that the federal government is “focused on removing barriers to evidence-based treatment and recovery support services, expanding access to harm reduction services, supporting prevention efforts to reduce youth substance use and reducing the increasingly lethal supply of illicit substances.”
The Biden administration’s efforts to curb the rising drug overdose death toll include a $4 billion investment under the American Rescue Plan Act to improve access to addiction and harm reduction services.
Federal regulatory changes aimed at stemming drug deaths include relaxed rules for prescribing the FDA-approved addiction treatment drug buprenorphine, repeal of a decade-long prohibition on addiction treatment provided from mobile medical units and allowing federal funds to be used to distribute fentanyl test strips to illicit drug users.
The administration also said it would expand its High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas drug control program to all 50 states and the District of Columbia, bringing together local and regional drug intelligence and public health officials to share information and develop intervention and support services that reduce drug overdoses.
Bolstered federal drug interdiction efforts will include new regional law enforcement campaigns aimed at breaking up drug trafficking organizations in six counties in California, Illinois, Kentucky and Pennsylvania.
In addition, the administration said it was funding development of model state legislation designed to expand access to harm reduction services and promote equity in drug treatment and law enforcement for underserved communities.