Since COVID-19 first started upending day-to-day life for Americans in March 2020, public health officials have been sounding the alarm about a potential surge in drug overdoses.
Overdose deaths rose during the second half of 2019, and experts feared the pandemic would produce conditions that would further increase overdoses and deaths: economic shock, social isolation and increased mental health distress, and disrupted access to addiction support and medications that require face-to-face visits.
Interim reports from government agencies and researchers have suggested these fears were being realized, with provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now further supporting these claims.
Overdose Deaths Spiked After Start of the Pandemic, Driven by Synthetic Opioids Like Fentanyl
The CDC’s National Vital Statistics System (NVSS) provides monthly provisional data on predicted total drug overdose deaths during the preceding 12 months. The most recent data reflect September 2019 through August 2020. During that period, there were 88,295 predicted deaths, a record high that is almost 19,000 more deaths (27%) than the prior 12-month period.
Using these predicted data in combination with final data from 2019, we estimated monthly overdose deaths from January to August 2020. Our estimates show that total overdose deaths spiked to record levels in March 2020 after the pandemic hit. Monthly deaths grew by about 50 percent between February and May to more than 9,000; they were likely still around 8,000 in August. Prior to 2020, U.S. monthly overdose deaths had never risen above 6,300.
Opioid-related deaths drove these increases, specifically synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Opioids accounted for around 75 percent of all overdose deaths during the early months of the pandemic; around 80 percent of those included synthetic opioids.
CDC recently published an interactive visualization tool with preliminary weekly estimates of overdose deaths. These data suggest that overdose deaths remained elevated well into the fall before declining toward the prepandemic baseline near the start of 2021. The final 2020 total in the United States could exceed 90,000 overdose deaths, compared to 70,630 in 2019. That would not only be the highest annual number on record but the largest single-year percentage increase in the past 20 years.
President Biden campaigned on a platform to address the opioid crisis through a public health approach that includes expanding funding and resources, reforming the criminal justice system, increasing insurance coverage, and widening access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) and mental health care. His administration has already faced early pressure to make it easier for providers to prescribe buprenorphine — a key component of MAT — during the pandemic.
One policy tool that can address multiple objectives is Medicaid expansion. Data continue to show the positive impact of expansion on coverage, MAT access, and mortality outcomes for substance-use patients.
By simply expanding Medicaid, non-expansion states like Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, and South Carolina could access significant federal financing in their push to help an ever-growing number of people in need. These four states all experienced overdose death increases above 30 percent during the first eight months of 2020.
Utilizing Medicaid also decreases the reliance on annual discretionary funding to support siloed treatment programs, which has proven to be unsustainable in the fight to reduce drug overdoses. Policy experts recently argued for restructured financing of substance-use treatment through “mainstream public and private insurance programs” like Medicaid that allow states to reliably “pull” down funding as their needs increase.
But in the absence of further financing reform, federal discretionary funding has quickly increased to meet the growing crisis. The December 2020 funding package included $4.25 billion in mental health and substance-use emergency funding; the recently passed American Rescue Plan (ARP) will provide an additional $3.5 billion for block grants in these same areas. President Biden recently announced $2.5 billion to further support states.
Combined with ARP’s significant financial assistance for state and local governments, the targeted substance-use funding will likely be critical for struggling addiction-treatment providers and government agencies that account for a significant percentage of overall substance-use treatment funding. Many have had to contend with tighter budgets related to the pandemic’s economic impact.