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CDC: Drug overdose deaths in the US increased by 30%, driven by fentanyl

The COVID-19 pandemic and lack of access to prevention, treatment and harm reduction were likely contributing factors, the CDC said.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Drug overdose deaths rapidly increased between 2019 and 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found, and minority groups were largely affected. 

There were 91,799 drug overdose deaths in the United States, research from the CDC reports. That number represents the approximate 30-percent increase from 2019. Health experts believe the recent deaths have been driven by "illicitly manufactured" fentanyl. 

The COVID-19 pandemic played a role in the deaths, the CDC says, as people across the U.S. were impacted by the lack of access to prevention, treatment and harm reduction.

Researchers also found that health disparities connected to overdose rates are worsening for Black and non-Hispanic American Indian or Alaska Native (AI/AN) people. For example, Black Americans, in counties where there was greater income inequality, saw more overdose deaths. As county-level income inequality increased, overdose rates increased.

"Black [people] aged 15–24 years experienced the largest relative rate increase [in overdose deaths] from 2019 to 2020 (86%). Among AI/AN persons, the highest relative rate increase occurred among those aged 25–44 years (49%). Among White persons, those aged 15–24 years experienced the largest relative rate increase (34%)," the report says.

Furthermore, the CDC believes the COVID-19 pandemic has "highlighted long-neglected disparities in access to and provision health care among AI/AN, Black and Hispanic" populations.

In order to curb the trend, prevention efforts should incorporate culturally responsive intervention, the CDC says.

"This includes addressing structural barriers and enhancing efforts such as linkage to care and harm reduction services," the agency added.

USF's Doctor Micah Johnson has been researching fentanyl's impact in the Tampa Bay area and the stress on the Black community.

“Why would people turn to these substances?" Johnson asked. "One, they don't have access to alternative means of coping. Two, even if they do have access, they might not know they have access so one of the major barriers is health literacy."

The CDC says fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. The synthetic opioid is prescribed to patients who are in severe pain, like those going through advanced cancer treatments or even hospice care because it doesn't have to be given in a pill. 

In July, Florida First Lady Casey DeSantis, alongside the Florida Department of Health and other agencies announced the launch of a statewide public messaging advisory system to inform the public of the dangers of fentanyl.

And Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill in May that increases the minimum mandatory sentence for trafficking in fentanyl from three years to seven years, with the penalty climbing to at least 20 years when dealing in greater amounts. Additionally, Floridians can now go to pharmacists to receive Narcan which can be administered during emergencies.

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