Drug overdose deaths reached another record level in the United States this spring, new data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows, as 2023 is on track to be another devastating year amid the drug epidemic.
More than 111,000 people died from a drug overdose in the 12-month period ending in April, according to the new estimates.
The previous record from March 2022 was first surpassed in December, and deaths have been ticking up since. The pace of the increase is much slower than it’s been in recent years, especially compared with the steep rise in the early years of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Still, the latest data through April shows that about a thousand more lives were lost in the past 12 months than in the year before that. There were 111,355 overdose deaths in the 12-month period ending April 2023, compared with 110,394 deaths in the 12-month period ending March 2022.
“I was expecting that overdose deaths would go down after the big jump during the Covid pandemic, as we resume our everyday life,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health.
Overdose deaths spiked 30% between 2019 and 2020 and rose another 15% between 2020 and 2021, a reflection of the powerful stressors of an unusual time, she said.
“So to me, it is very concerning that these numbers remain so elevated,” Volkow said.
While national trends show relatively small increases, parts of the country – especially the West – continue to see major surges in overdose deaths.
Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are involved in nearly 70% of the overdose deaths, according to the provisional data from the CDC. Increases in overdoses involving these drugs accounted for the vast majority of the overall increase in deaths.
Psychostimulants were involved in about a third of deaths, and cocaine was involved in about a quarter of deaths.
“Fentanyl is everywhere,” Volkow said. “It’s not just disguised as heroin, but it’s also actually present in cocaine and methamphetamine.”
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The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first over-the-counter naloxone, a drug used to reverse opioid overdose, in March. The latest overdose deaths data would theoretically reflect the first month of that approval, but the drug just started to become available in stores and online in recent weeks.
And experts say that reversing the trends in overdose deaths really depends on broader access to and use of treatments for opioid use disorder.
“Naloxone is necessary but completely inadequate,” said Caleb Banta-Green, a research professor at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
“We need everyone to understand that opioid use disorder is a treatable medical condition,” he said. “The medications methadone and buprenorphine are the evidence-based treatments, and they reduce mortality by more than 50% and can support long-term recovery.”