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A Record 93,000 People Died From Drug Overdoses In The U.S. Last Year

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than 93,000 people in the United States died from drug overdoses last year. That is according to provisional data released by the National Center for Health Statistics. It is a huge spike in deaths from overdoses. And we know the pandemic increased isolation, stress and economic anxiety, all of which are factors associated with increased drug use. NPR's health correspondent Rhitu Chatterjee is here to tell us more about these numbers.

Hey, Rhitu.

RHITU CHATTERJEE, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: So more than 93,000 deaths - it's so big. It's so awful. Give us some context for that number.

CHATTERJEE: So, yeah, it's nearly a 30% jump compared to 2019. And I spoke with Dr. Nora Volkow. She's the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. And she says this was the largest rise in overdose deaths in a 12-month period that we've ever seen. And the peak in those overdose deaths, she says, was for people between the ages of 35 and 45. So we're talking about people in their most productive years with a lot of responsibilities.

NORA VOLKOW: The magnitude of the cost to our society of lives lost from overdoses is gigantic.

CHATTERJEE: And she says that the pandemic really exacerbated the opioid crisis, which, as we know, has been going on now for years.

KELLY: Yeah. So is one piece of this more people were using drugs during the pandemic?

CHATTERJEE: Exactly. That's one reason because the pandemic raised the risks for drug use. Here's doctor Volkow again.

VOLKOW: We were aware that the stress and the social distancing and the uncertainties from the pandemic were going to actually lead to increased drug consumption. And we have seen this in the country.

CHATTERJEE: And she also said that public health officials were so focused on dealing with a pandemic that it took attention and resources away from the addiction crisis. And I also spoke with Chuck Ingoglia. He's the president and CEO of National Council for Mental Well-Being. And he said that a lot of in-person supports and services went away or were cut back significantly.

CHUCK INGOGLIA: Many of the frontline services - street outreach, harm reduction - were also curtailed during the pandemic.

CHATTERJEE: And this really affected people who are on the path to recovery. Right? And it made it more likely that they would relapse. And when you add to that the rise in availability of synthetic opioids like fentanyl, it's easy to see why there was such a huge spike in overdose deaths.

KELLY: Now, I'm curious because we know that the pandemic hit Black communities, hit brown communities harder.

CHATTERJEE: Right.

KELLY: Do the new data show similar disparities in overdose deaths?

CHATTERJEE: So the new data don't parse things out by race and ethnicity. However, there was a study earlier this year that found that in Philadelphia, the surge in drug overdose deaths last year was higher for Black residents. And there are similar findings in California. But one thing that the new data does provide is a state-by-state breakdown. So, for example, Kentucky, Vermont, South Carolina saw more than a 50% rise in overdose deaths. I have to mention Florida and California just from the - because of the sheer numbers. California lost more than 9,000 lives to overdoses and Florida - more than 7,000.

KELLY: And is there a plan to try to turn this around, bring the numbers down this year?

CHATTERJEE: I asked Ingoglia the same thing, and he said he's hopeful because there is increased funding to address this.

INGOGLIA: The Biden-Harris administration is really prioritizing the full continuum of interventions, everything from harm reduction to, you know, increased treatment capacity.

CHATTERJEE: But he said we really need long-term funding to tackle this.

KELLY: To tackle it for good, sure - that is NPR's Rhitu Chatterjee.

Thank you.

CHATTERJEE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.