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Drug overdose deaths in 2020 hit highest number ever recorded, CDC data shows

By Maggie Fox, CNN

Drug overdose deaths rose by close to 30% in the United States in 2020, hitting the highest number ever recorded, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported Wednesday.

More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to provisional data released by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics. That’s a 29.4% increase from the 72,151 deaths projected for 2019.

“Overdose deaths from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) and psychostimulants such as methamphetamine also increased in 2020 compared to 2019. Cocaine deaths also increased in 2020, as did deaths from natural and semi-synthetic opioids (such as prescription pain medication),” the NCHS said in a statement.

“This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period, and the largest increase since at least 1999,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, said in a statement.

“These data are chilling. The COVID-19 pandemic created a devastating collision of health crises in America,” added Volkow.

As in recent years, inappropriate use of opioids was behind most of the deaths. The NCHS reported that overdose deaths from opioids rose from 50,963 in 2019 to 69,710 in 2020.

“This has been an incredibly uncertain and stressful time for many people and we are seeing an increase in drug consumption, difficulty in accessing life-saving treatments for substance use disorders, and a tragic rise in overdose deaths,” Volkow said.

“As we continue to address both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis, we must prioritize making treatment options more widely available to people with substance use disorders.”

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former deputy commission at the US Food and Drug Administration, agreed the pandemic made an already serious crisis even worse.

“The pandemic had a lot to do with it,” Sharfstein told CNN.

“But as the pandemic recedes, we are still dealing with this overdose crisis.”

Overdoses from opioids have been steadily worsening in the US for decades. Some members of Congress have blamed the FDA for approving new synthetic opioids, and makers of some of the drugs — notably Oxycontin maker Purdue Pharma — have been prosecuted for their role in marketing them.

Last week, members of the Sackler family, who own Purdue, reached a $4.5 billion settlement with 15 states as part of legal actions dissolving the company.

Doctors have also been blamed for overprescribing opioids and addicting people to them in the first place.

Sharfstein said he thinks the FDA could and should do more to control over-prescribing of opioids.

“There are definitely actions that the clinical community can take to reduce the risk of people becoming addicted to opioids,” Sharfstein told CNN.

“The FDA oversight of medical and clinical practice is an area the agency acknowledges it needs to improve. The question of whether a particular drug should have been approved or not is fair to ask. But now the emphasis should be on the oversight of prescribing,” added Sharfstein.

“If you think about how the country has made progress on Covid since there was a clear national strategy that included goals and good data and evidence for critical projects — I think that kind of approach is important here. The same kind of urgency and strategy that has been applied to Covid could produce results over time.”

Sharfstein was pleased by the announcement Tuesday that President Joe Biden would nominate former West Virginia health commissioner Dr. Rahul Gupta to head the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. If confirmed, Gupta would be the first physician to lead the office.

“Dr, Gupta is experienced at viewing the drug crisis as a health problem. He’ll follow the evidence where it takes him,” Sharfstein said.

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