Drug overdose deaths in U.S. hit record high in 2021, CDC reports

Nearly 108,000 people in the United States died as a result of drug overdoses in 2021, the highest number recorded in a calendar year, according to figures released Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The 107,622 overdose deaths reported last year pushes the total for the 21st century, or since 2001, to more than 1 million, the CDC said.

The 2021 number marks a 15% rise over 2020, the previous record high for a calendar year, the agency.

Overdose deaths from opioids, a class that includes “street” drugs such as heroin and prescription pain medications, such as oxycodone and fentanyl, totaled nearly 81,000 nationally in 2021, up from just over 70,000 in 2020, the data showed.

Deaths due to overdoses of synthetic, or manufactured, opioids, such as fentanyl, rose to just over 71,000 from 58,000, while those related to use of psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased to 33,000 from 25,000 over the same period, the CDC said.

Deaths from cocaine overdoses spiked to just under 25,000 in 2021 from slightly less than 20,000 the year before, the data showed.

“These data surpass another devastating milestone in the history of the overdose epidemic in America,” Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, told UPI in a statement.

“Behind each of these numbers, there is a person’s life that has been lost, a family devastated, a community impacted,” she said.

The 2021 numbers are provisional, meaning they are incomplete and subject to change, according to the CDC.

Initial estimates pegged drug overdose deaths across the country in 2020 at 100,000 or more.

However, that figure ultimately was revised downward by the CDC, to just under 94,000.

Still, the numbers illustrate the effects of the ongoing “opioid epidemic” in the United States, which has seen a rise in use — and misuse — of the drugs since the late 1990s.

Recent research indicates opioid misuse could claim as many as 1.2 million lives across North America from overdoses by the end of the decade.

Much of this increase in overdose deaths is fueled by fentanyl, originally developed as a strong prescription painkiller but now often produced and sold illegally.

Communities of color, including Black Americans and American Indians and Alaska Natives, have borne the brunt of the overdose deaths nationally, which have increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly among young people, studies suggest.

To address the rise in overdose deaths, the Biden administration has proposed a strategy that emphasizes “harm reduction” and increases access to treatment.

“We have underused treatments that could help many people,” Volkow said.

“We must meet people where they are to prevent overdoses, reduce harm, and connect people to proven treatments to reduce drug use,” she said.

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