Deaths, despair tied to drug dependence are accelerating amid COVID-19

Patients with OUDs need assistance now more than ever.


The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported recently that opioid overdose deaths will increase to a new U.S. record, and more are expected as pandemic-related overdose deaths are yet to be counted.1

Dr. Mark S. Gold, professor of psychiatry (adjunct) at Washington University, St. Louis, and 17th Distinguished Alumni Professor at the University of Florida, Gainesville

Dr. Mark S. Gold

Specifically, according to the CDC, 70,980 people died from fatal overdoses in 2019,2 which is record high. Experts such as Bruce A. Goldberger, PhD, fear that the 2020 numbers could rise even higher, exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic.

Deaths from drug overdoses remain higher than the peak yearly death totals ever recorded for car accidents, guns, or AIDS. Overdose deaths have accelerated further – pushing down overall life expectancy in the United States.3 Headlines purporting to identify good news in drug death figures don’t always get below top-level data. Deaths and despair tied to drug dependence are indeed accelerating. I am concerned about these alarmingly dangerous trends.

Synthetic opioids such as fentanyl accounted for about 3,000 deaths in 2013. By 2019, they accounted for more than 37,137.4 In addition, 16,539 deaths involved stimulants such as methamphetamine, and 16,196 deaths involved cocaine, the most recent CDC reporting shows. Opioids continue to play a role in U.S. “deaths of despair,” or rising fatalities from drugs, suicides, and alcohol among Americans without employment, hope of job opportunities, or college degrees.5 As the American Medical Association has warned,6 more people are dying from overdoses amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Clinicians need to be aware of trends so that we can help our patients navigate these challenges.

Fentanyl presents dangers

Experts had predicted that the pandemic, by limiting access to treatment, rescue, or overdose services, and increasing time at home and in the neighborhood, would result in more tragedy. In addition, the shift from prescription opioids to heroin and now to fentanyl has made deaths more common.

Fentanyls – synthetic opioids – are involved in more than half of overdose deaths, and in many of the cocaine and methamphetamine-related deaths, which also are on the rise. Fentanyl is about 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more potent than heroin. Breathing can stop after use of just 2 mg of fentanyl, which is about as much as trace amounts of table salt. Fentanyl has replaced heroin in many cities as the pandemic changed the relative ease of importing raw drugs such as heroin.

Another important trend is that fentanyl production and distribution throughout the United States have expanded. The ease of manufacture in unregulated sectors of the Chinese and Mexican economies is difficult for U.S. authorities to curb or eliminate. The Internet promotes novel strategies for synthesizing the substance, spreading its production across many labs; suppliers use the U.S. Postal Service for distribution, and e-commerce helps to get the drug from manufacturers to U.S. consumers for fentanyl transactions.

A recent RAND report observes that, for only $10 through the postal service, suppliers can ship a 1-kg parcel from China to the United States, and private shipments cost about $100.7 And with large volumes of legal trade between the two countries making rigorous scrutiny of products difficult, especially given the light weight of fentanyl, suppliers find it relatively easy to hide illicit substances in licit shipments. Opioid users have made the switch to fentanyl, and have seen fentanyl added to cocaine and methamphetamine they buy on the streets.


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