US Overdose Fatalities Soar To New Heights

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) data released on Wednesday reveals that over 96,000 Americans lost their lives to overdose-related deaths in the 12-month time span that concluded in March of this year.

Deaths rose to new absolute heights, but at a relatively lower rate; fatalities saw a 29.7% increase from February 2020 to February 2021 and a 29.6% increase from March 2020 to March 2021. Although 96,000 seems a high number, it is actually lower than the CDC’s forecast for the time period. The agency had predicted over 99,000 deaths.

There may be several possible explanations as to why certain states saw sharp increases while others had steep decreases. South Dakota, for example, saw their overdose fatality total decrease by 16.3%, a reduction larger than any other in the nation. The Argus Leader, South Dakota’s biggest newspaper, shared a few potential theories in July reporting that, “For one, South Dakota had the loosest COVID-19 restrictions in the country, with Gov. Kristi Noem not issuing a stay-at-home order.”

South Dakota also had open rehabs, many of which were full throughout lockdown, which could speak to the effectiveness of inpatient treatment in preventing overdose.

Vermont, the state that had the largest increase in deaths at 85.1%, rescinded its pandemic-related restrictions in June; during the period in which deaths were measured, however, Vermont was under lockdown orders or a COVID-19 State of Emergency every month.

Opioids Claim Largest Portion Of Overdose Deaths

According to CNN, “In the breakdown of CDC overdose death data by drug class, [Opioids] accounted for the highest number of overdose deaths, followed by [Synthetic Opioids] excluding [Methadone].”

The Opioid epidemic has been raging since the 1990s. Deaths have risen over time, and have risen most sharply for Synthetic Opioids like Tramadol or Fentanyl, especially in recent years.

While many Americans may be aware of the deadly nature of Opioids in regards to their potential to cause overdose, some may be less informed about the troubling connection the drugs have to human trafficking.

A Wednesday report from a CBS affiliate in Ohio found that “[Opioid] use disorder goes hand-in-hand with human trafficking, in part due to coercion, but also because survivors turn to them to numb the physical and mental pain.”

Opioids’ unfortunate and synergistic links to crime and death were forged in large part because of the deceptive marketing of pharmaceutical companies like Purdue Pharma; the company made headlines several times this year as its owners, the Sacklers, were granted immunity from lawsuits related to the Opioid epidemic. The Department of Justice, led by Merrick Garland, filed an appeal against the ruling last month. Meanwhile, the story of Purdue Pharma and the Sackler family is being fictionalized in the new TV show Dopesick; the narrative chronicles the course of the epidemic throughout multiple decades of American history.

Narcan Saves Lives, Help Still Available

There are a few scattered but significant bright spots amid the devastation of the Opioid epidemic. Many fatalities have been avoided due to Narcan; the drug was administered to successfully reverse overdoses more than 26,000 times between 1996 and 2014.

However, even this major asset in the campaign to end the Opioid epidemic is limited in its efficacy. For one thing, supply chain issues can mean losing lives; The Washington Post reported in August that, “After a manufacturing issue halted Pfizer’s production of the single-dose injectable [Naloxone] in April, groups that distribute a significant amount of the lifesaving medicine say they are facing an unprecedented obstacle…the insufficient supply has been felt unequally across the country.”

One place it’s been felt is in Rhode Island. A public charity in the state announced Wednesday that it would spend a quarter of a million dollars on Narcan kits for strapped care providers and treatment centers.

That fact that care providers and treatment centers are operating and helping to treat addiction and other mental health disorders is another main reason that overdose deaths aren’t as high as they could have been; medication-assisted treatment can help users come off of Opioids safely and relatively comfortably, and talk therapy can help the individual uncover the root causes of their problematic thoughts and behaviors.

Many have seen their lives change for the better after seeking treatment; in the words of Britton, a veteran who sought treatment for Opioid use disorder and had his story told by the CDC, “Addiction is hard; you have to reach out for help. The recovery side of it is amazing. You get to a place where you’re proud of yourself again.”

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William Henken

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  • Will Henken earned a B.A. in Advertising and Public Relations from the University of Central Florida. He has had his work published in the Orlando Sentinel, and has previous experience crafting copy for political action committees and advocacy groups dedicated to social justice. Addiction and mental health are personal subjects for him, and his greatest hope is that he can give a helping hand to those seeking healthy and lasting recovery.

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