Overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government reported Wednesday. That estimate far eclipses the high of about 72,000 drug overdose deaths reached the previous year and amounts to a 29% increase. "This is a staggering loss of human life," said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends, per the AP. The nation was already struggling with its worst overdose epidemic, but clearly "COVID has greatly exacerbated the crisis," he added. Lockdowns and other pandemic restrictions isolated those with drug addictions and made treatment harder to get, experts said. The CDC reviewed death certificates to come up with the estimate for 2020 drug overdose deaths. The estimate of over 93,000 overdose deaths translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 every hour.
While prescription painkillers once drove the nation's overdose epidemic, they were supplanted first by heroin, then by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid, in recent years. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs. "What's really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply," said Shannon Monnat, a sociology instructor at Syracuse University. There's no current evidence that more Americans started using drugs last year, Monnat said. Rather, the increased deaths most likely were people who had already been struggling with addiction. Some have told her research team that suspensions of evictions and extended unemployment benefits left them with more money than usual. And they said "when I have money, I stock up on my [drug] supply," she said. The 21,000 increase is the biggest year-to-year jump since the count rose by 11,000 in 2016.
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