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NEW YORK – An estimated 100,000 Americans died in one year from drug overdoses, an unprecedented milestone related to the COVID-19 pandemic and more dangerous drug supplies, according to health officials.
The death toll from overdose has been rising for more than two decades, has accelerated over the past two years, and is up nearly 30% over the past year, according to new data released Wednesday.
President Joe Biden in a statement called it “a tragic milestone” when government officials urged Congress to allocate billions more dollars to solve the problem.
“This is unacceptable and requires an unprecedented response,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, Director of National Drug Control Policy.
Experts believe the leading causes of overdose deaths are the growing prevalence of the deadly fentanyl in illicit drug supplies and the COVID-19 pandemic, which has left many drug users socially isolated and unable to receive treatment or other support.
The number is “devastating,” said Katherine Keyes, a drug abuse expert at Columbia University. “It’s a level of death from overdose that we have not seen in this country.”
Drug overdoses now outnumber deaths from car accidents, firearms, and even flu and pneumonia. The total number is close to diabetes, the number 7 killer in the country.
Based on the latest available death certificate data, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 100,300 Americans died from drug overdoses between May 2020 and April 2021. This is not an official census. It can take many months to complete a drug death investigation. Therefore, the agency made the estimate based on 98,000 reports it has received to date.
The CDC previously reported that there were approximately 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest number recorded in a calendar year. Robert Anderson, the CDC’s head of mortality statistics, said the number is likely to exceed 100,000 in 2021.
“2021 will be terrible,” agreed Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a drug policy expert at the University of California, San Francisco, too.
The new data shows that many of the deaths are due to illicit fentanyl, a highly lethal opioid that overtook heroin as the type of drug that was involved in most overdose deaths five years ago. Dealers have mixed fentanyl with other drugs, one reason why methamphetamine and cocaine deaths are on the rise.
Drug cartels in Mexico are using chemicals from China to mass-produce and distribute fentanyl and meth across America, said Anne Milgram, administrator for the Drug Enforcement Administration.
That year, the DEA seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl, a record amount, Milgram said. But public health experts and even police officers say law enforcement will not stop the epidemic and more needs to be done to curb demand and prevent deaths.
The CDC has not yet calculated the racial and ethnic breakdowns of the overdose victims.
It found that the estimated death toll in all but four states – Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and South Dakota – increased year over year. The fastest growing states were Vermont (70%), West Virginia (62%), and Kentucky (55%).
Minnesota saw an increase of about 39%, with estimated overdose deaths rising from 858 in the previous 12 month period to 1,188 from May 2020 to April 2021.
In the Mankato area, the number of overdose deaths has increased from two in 2019 to six last year to 16 so far this year, police Lt. Jeff Wersal, who heads a regional drug task force.
“I honestly don’t see it getting better, not so quickly,” he said.
One of the victims of the year was Travis Gustavson, who died in Mankato in February at the age of 21. His blood showed signs of fentanyl, heroin, marijuana and the sedative Xanax, Wersal said.
Gustavson was close to his mother, two brothers and the rest of his family, said his grandmother Nancy Sack.
He was known for his easy smile, she said. “He could cry as a little guy, but if someone smiled at him, he immediately stopped crying and smiled back,” she recalls.
Gustavson first tried drugs as a child and received treatment as a teenager, Sack said. He struggled with anxiety and depression, but mostly used marijuana and various types of pills, she said.
On the morning of his death, Travis had a tooth pulled, but he was not prescribed strong pain relievers because of his drug history, Sack said. He told his mother that he would just stay home and endure the pain with ibuprofen. He was expecting his girlfriend to visit that evening to see a movie, she said.
Gustavson, however, contacted Max Leo Miller, also 21, who, according to police, provided him with a bag of heroin and fentanyl.
Some details of what happened are controversial, but all reports suggest that Gustavson was new to heroin and fentanyl.
According to police, Gustavson and Miller exchanged messages on social media. Once Gustavson sent a photo of a line of white substance on a brown table and asked if he was taking the correct amount and then wrote, “Or bigger?”
According to a police report, Miller replied, “Little brother” and “Be careful, please!”
The Associated Press Health & Science Department is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.