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CDC says drug overdose deaths reached highest on record last year

More than 107,600 Americans died from drug overdoses last year, the highest annual death toll on record, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said Wednesday.

Overdose deaths increased 15 percent in 2021, up from an estimated 93,655 fatalities the year prior, according to a report from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, which collects data on a range of health topics, including drug use.

While the total number of deaths reached record highs, the increase appeared to slow compared to the change seen between 2019 and 2020, when overdose deaths rose 30 percent, according to the report.

It’s still too early to say whether that slowdown will hold, said Farida Ahmad, a scientist at the NCHS. The agency’s latest report is considered provisional, meaning the data are incomplete and subject to change.

Even if the increase in overdose deaths is smaller compared to last year, the 2021 total is still a huge number, Ahmad said.

The data help illustrate one of the consequences of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen an uptick in substance abuse amid widespread unemployment and more Americans reporting mental health issues.

Overdose-related deaths were already increasing before the pandemic struck, but there was “clearly a very sharp uptick during the pandemic,” said Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles. He published research in April that found drug overdose deaths among teenagers rose sharply over the last two years.

According to the NCHS report, fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, was involved in the most overdose deaths in 2021: 71,238.

Methamphetamine was implicated in 32,856 overdose deaths, cocaine in 24,538 deaths, and prescription pain medications in 13,503 deaths.

Friedman said that illicitly manufactured fentanyl, in particular, is a huge problem in the U.S., as it can be packaged as pills.

Earlier this month, Ohio State University officials warned of “fake Adderall” pills laced with fentanyl following the death of a student.

Ahmad agreed that fentanyl is a huge problem, but added that other drugs, like methamphetamines, are also involved in a large number of deaths, particularly in Western states.

The biggest percentage increase in overdose deaths in 2021 was seen in Alaska, where deaths were up 75.3 percent compared to the previous year, according to the report.

To combat the overdose deaths, Friedman said the U.S. should invest in harm reduction and treatment programs for people with substance abuse disorders.

The problem impacts some groups more than others — Native Americans are the most affected group, and the overdose death rate for Black people has overtaken whites, he said.

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