CDC issues alert on drug overdose deaths

Dec. 18, 2020

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an advisory about substantial increases in drug overdose deaths across the United States, primarily driven by rapid increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids excluding methadone, likely illicitly manufactured fentanyl, the agency said.

In the Health Alert Network (HAN) Advisory, the CDC said the largest increase in drug overdose deaths were recorded from March–May 2020, which coincided with COVID-19 mitigation efforts. The largest percentage increase occurred in the western United States, the CDC said.

The CDC also recorded significant increases in overdose deaths involving psychostimulants with abuse potential, such as methamphetamine.

The most recent provisional data available from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) indicate that approximately 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12-months ending in May 2020, which represents a worsening of the drug overdose epidemic in the United States and is the largest number of drug overdoses for a 12-month period ever recorded, the CDC said.

After declining 4.1 percent from 2017 to 2018, the number of overdose deaths increased 18.2 percent from the 12 months ending in June 2019 to the 12 months ending in May 2020.

Synthetic opioids are the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths. The 12-month count of synthetic opioid deaths increased 38.4 percent from the 12-month period ending in June 2019, compared with the 12-month period ending in May 2020.

Historically, deaths involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl have been concentrated in the 28 states east of the Mississippi River, where the heroin market has primarily been dominated by white powder heroin, the CDC said. In contrast, the largest increases in synthetic opioid deaths from the 12-month percent ending in June 2019 to the 12-month percent ending in May 2020 occurred in 10 western states. Increases in synthetic opioid overdose deaths were also substantial in other regions: 35.4 percent in the South, 32.1 percent in the Midwest and 21.1 percent in the Northeast. 

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