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U.S. drug overdose deaths increase nearly 30% during COVID-19 pandemic

Bruce A. Taylor/NH State Police Forensic Lab
A lethal dose of heroin compared to a lethal dose of fentanyl. This is just an illustration—the substance actually shown in this photo is an artificial sweetener.";

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. spiked nearly 30 percent during the pandemic and reached the highest level ever recorded, according to data released Wednesday from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

During the 12-month period between April 2020 and April 2021, more than 100,000 people died from drug overdoses — a 28.5 percent increase compared to the previous year.

Kentucky saw the highest increase in overdose deaths of any Midwestern state at nearly 55 percent. Indiana had the third-highest increase in the Midwest, with a 32 percent jump in fatal overdose deaths.

Other Midwestern states also saw increases in overdose deaths:

  • Minnesota — 38.5 percent increase
  • Ohio — nearly 27 percent increase
  • Wisconsin — nearly 22 percent increase
  • Michigan — 19 percent increase
  • Missouri — nearly 15 percent increase
  • Illinois — 13 percent increase
  • Iowa — 9.5 percent increase

Only four states saw a decrease in overdose deaths: South Dakota, New Jersey, Delaware and New Hampshire.The new data suggests the opioid epidemic is far from over, and public health officials say fentanyl —a synthetic opioid that is much more deadly than other opioids — is largely to blame.

In 2020, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration reported that fentanyl-laced drugs smuggled into the United States remained “primarily responsible for fueling the ongoing opioid crisis.”

Increasingly, black market drugs are being cut with fentanyl — and people may be unaware. This includes pills manufactured to look identical to legitimate prescriptions, such as Xanax, Adderall and Oxycontin.

Earlier this year, federal lab testing revealed four out of 10 fentanyl-laced pills contained a potentially lethal dose.

“The fentanyl-laced fake pills seized by DEA could potentially kill more than 700,000 Americans. I urge the American public today to talk to their loved ones about the threats and dangers of fake pills and the simple fact that one pill can kill,” Anne Milgram, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said in a statement.

The same report found fentanyl-laced pills increased 430 percent since 2019.

This story comes from Side Effects Public Media — a public health news initiative based at WFYI. Follow Carter on Twitter: @carter_barrett