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Overdose – Tragic Crisis During the Pandemic

by Landmark Recovery

July 16, 2021
overdose 2020 sad man on bed

A breakdown of drug overdoses that claimed 93,000 lives in 2020

Plus, 5 ways to push back on the opioid crisis

The opioid epidemic in the United States is sadly not new. And neither are opioid-related overdose deaths. But what no one saw coming was how the COVID-19 pandemic would push the opioid crisis to new heights.

At the end of 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated more than 81,000 people died from a drug overdose between May 2019 and May 2020. At the time, this was the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded for a single year in U.S. history.

But this week, the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) released new provisional data: the death count is actually closer to 93,000. That’s an average of 250 people dying per day, or 11 every hour.

COVID-19’s impact is especially telling when you compare 2019 deaths to 2020 deaths. With the mounting pressures and isolation of the pandemic – along with other stressful events in 2020 – drug overdose deaths grew by 29.4%.

What’s more, the American Medical Association pointed out a heartbreaking connection between COVID-19 and drug overdoses in Black and Latinx communities. A study by researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that Black people had the largest increase in overdose deaths. Their death rate jumped 50.3% in 2020, and Latinos followed close behind at 49.7%.

Which drugs were responsible?

Opioids drove the nationwide spike in overdoses in 2020. They accounted for 70% of all drug overdose deaths. And synthetic opioids (especially fentanyl) were the biggest culprit. 

In December 2020, synthetic opioid deaths claimed more than 56,000 lives. Compare this to nearly 24,000 psychostimulant deaths and 19,500 cocaine deaths.

Still, CDC data showed that deaths by psychostimulants, cocaine, natural opioids, and semi-synthetic opioids all grew last year, too:

  • Psychostimulant-related overdoses (typically methamphetamine) grew 34.8%.
  • Cocaine deaths (likely linked to fentanyl or heroin) increased 26.5%.
  • Natural opioid (e.g. morphine) and semi-synthetic opioid (e.g. oxycodone and hydrocodone) deaths grew 12.84%.

Even when drug abuse wasn’t lethal, it showed itself in emergency room visits. A study that collected data on 70% of the nation’s emergency departments (ED) found that opioids, specifically, were the #1 reason for drug-related visits in 2020. 

Here’s a video that explains why there were so many opioid overdoses in 2020:


Accepting Reality: Addiction Is Real

The number of drug overdose deaths in 2020 is devastating, and the ripple effects of COVID-19 and troubling events of 2020 are likely far from over.

Past research on the impact of large-scale events (like natural disasters, pandemics, and social unrest) has shown that events – like those of 2020 – often lead to an increase in short- and long-term mental health problems, including substance use. 

Now, more than ever, the curtain is being pulled back on addiction and substance use disorders. And the truth is that it is impacting Americans from all walks of life.

In a recent article by the Associated Press, it detailed the timeline of the opioid pandemic and how addiction “was not widely accepted as a public health crisis — with a focus on treatment instead of incarceration — until recent years, only once it started killing white teens in the suburbs.”

Researchers also are linking deaths to the contaminated drug supply. For example, a person whose drug of choice is heroin has a higher risk of an unpredictable experience (or even overdose) because it could be laced with fentanyl. Think about the implications: someone trying heroin for the first time could unknowingly be exposing themselves to fentanyl. 

Where do we go from here?

For lives to be saved, there is a huge need to champion efforts that not only de-stigmatize addiction, but also to educate individuals about substance abuse and the importance of mental health. 

Here are Landmark’s recommendations for first steps if you or a loved one is battling a drug addiction: 

  • Addiction is not a moral failing; it is a disease. In 2021, the medical and scientific communities almost universally classify addiction as a disease. Some people are genetically predisposed to addiction, others start using drugs through choice then become addicted, while others unwittingly become addicted to prescription medications. There is almost universal agreement between the scientific and medical communities that substance use disorder (SUD) is a disease, and that it should be treated as a disease. This marks a shift in thinking: addicted people are sick people, not bad people. 

  • Know the risks – and talk about them. The numbers speak for themselves: opioids are dangerous. But so are other drugs. Regardless of the substance – alcohol, marijuana, heroin, opioids, cocaine, or meth – take the time to learn about their side effects and their likelihood for addiction. Education about the dangers of drug abuse and the importance of mental health will be vital at the community, state, and national levels if overdose rates are going to decrease. But this is incredibly important on a personal level, too. Having conversations with friends, family, and community members will play a huge role in breaking the stigma of addiction.
  • Recognize the signs of an opioid overdose and intervene. Reduced breathing is often the reason for opioid overdoses because of the reduced oxygen to the brain and vital organs like the heart and lungs. Other obvious signs of an overdose include: vomiting, pinpointed pupils, loss of consciousness, confusion or delirium, cold skin, and blue skin around the lips or under fingernails. An individual who is experiencing an overdose needs immediate medical attention. Administering Naloxone, if available, offers the individual the best chance of survival, aside from calling 9-1-1; it can be given as a nasal spray or injected into muscle, under the skin, or into the veins.

  • Reach out. A recent study showed that 13% of those surveyed said they had started or increased their substance use to deal with stress related to COVID-19. The core issue here is mental health, not substance abuse. If this is you, or someone you know, reach out! This could be a person you trust or a recovery specialist. Making the decision to seek substance abuse treatment is a huge step toward healing. But, more importantly, it is about mental wellness.

  • Learn more about medication-assisted treatment. Medication-assisted treatment (MAT) is the only evidence-based treatment for opioid use disorder because it combines medication counseling and behavioral therapy to treat the addiction. An increasingly popular type of MAT is Vivitrol, a non-addictive opioid antagonist that helps patients with cravings and urges in the early stages of sobriety. Vivitrol is not the sole factor that can decide the outcome of treatment. However, it can be extremely helpful for those facing daily cravings for opioids.

About Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery is dedicated to providing high quality, affordable, and personalized treatment programs so that our patients can not only survive but live beyond their addictions. Landmark also cares deeply about the movement to de-stigmatize addiction and promote mental health & wellness. Our goal is to eliminate unsupported relapse among our patients within 5 years of treatment, and to restore hope to 1 million families over the next 100 years.

To learn more, visit landmarkrecovery.com or speak with a recovery specialist 24/7 at 888-448-0302 today.

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About the Author

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery

Landmark Recovery was founded with a determination to make addiction treatment accessible for all. Through our integrated treatment programs, we've helped thousands of people choose recovery over addiction and get back to life on their own terms. We're on a mission to save one million lives over the next century. We encourage all those struggling with substance use to seek professional help.