Drug overdose deaths, fueled by fentanyl, hit record high in US

Communities hope to combat record drug overdose deaths reported amid pandemic

Isolation, anxiety, stress and the fear of contracting COVID-19 created barriers to treatment, according to addiction experts.

The U.S. recorded its highest number of drug-overdose deaths in a 12-month period, eclipsing 100,000 for the first time, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There were an estimated 100,306 drug deaths in the 12 months running through April, the latest CDC data show. This marks a nearly 29% rise from the deaths recorded in the same period a year earlier, indicating the U.S. is heading for another full-year record after drug deaths soared during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It’s telling us that 2021 looks like it will be worse than 2020,” said Robert Anderson, chief of the mortality statistics branch at the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Opioid-related deaths, mainly fueled by the potent drug fentanyl, accounted for about three quarters of the deaths through April, according to the CDC, which counts provisional drug deaths in yearlong blocks. These records take months to compile because drug overdoses typically require local death investigations and toxicology tests.

Fentanyl has for years been a major catalyst in an intensifying U.S. overdose crisis. The nation was reporting fewer than 50,000 fatal overdoses as recently as 2014. In 2020, the number surged to a record of about 93,330.

The super-strong painkiller fentanyl is often disguised as other, less potent painkillers.
(Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office via AP)

The pandemic intensified opioid problems in many ways, from increasing isolation among people trying to maintain their sobriety to complicating treatment, according to advocates for drug users and those in recovery. The pandemic has also been a major draw on resources and attention for public health authorities, who are still trying to manage Covid-19.


Bootleg versions of fentanyl are often made by drug cartels in Mexico with chemicals from China, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. While fentanyl hit hard in places like New England, Appalachian and Midwest states several years ago, the drug is a fast-growing problem in western parts of the U.S. now, too. The DEA recently warned of a proliferation in fake pills containing fentanyl.

Fentanyl-related deaths are soaring in the Las Vegas area, where the Southern Nevada Health District has recorded 160 deaths with the drug through August this year. This puts the region on pace to potentially surpass the 193 fentanyl deaths seen last year, said Brandon Delise, an epidemiologist with the health district.

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