Drug overdose deaths soared above 106,000 in 2021, topping the spike that occurred during the first wave of the pandemic in 2020.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released its final report revealing the dismal numbers on Friday, just before Christmas.
The U.S. saw a total of 106,699 drug overdose deaths in 2021, and the age-adjusted rate of deaths increased 14% from 2020 to 2021, the CDC said.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 50 times stronger than heroin, drove the spike. The rate of overdose deaths that involved synthetic opioids increased 22% in 2021, while the rate of fatal heroin overdoses dropped 32%.
About 379 million deadly doses of fentanyl were seized this year by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the agency announced earlier this week. Much of the fentanyl flows over the U.S.-Mexico border, although some fentanyl as well as the materials to make fentanyl come into the U.S. from China.
Despite fentanyl being the main driver of overdoses, cocaine and other psychostimulants also saw a rise in overdose deaths in 2021.
Overdose deaths of males have risen sharply since about 2013 at a much higher rate than overdose deaths of females, the CDC data shows. During both 2020 and 2021, overdose death rates were highest for those age 35 to 44 and lowest for seniors, those over 65. However, seniors saw the highest increase in the rate of overdose deaths of any age group in 2021 — 28%.
Native Americans had the highest overdose death rate out of all racial groups in both 2020 and 2021, while Asian Americans had the lowest. Black Americans had a higher overdose death rate than white Americans both years.
“These data are very tragic but not surprising,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse. “The pandemic had a magnifying effect on an already-devastating overdose crisis, and exacerbated many of the stressors in society that make people more vulnerable to taking drugs.”
Spiking drug overdoses also helped drag life expectancy in 2o21 down to 76.4 years, the lowest since 1996, the CDC said. COVID deaths were another major cause of decreased life expectancy, which is now more than two years shorter than it was at the beginning of the pandemic.
“What we’re seeing in terms of the patterns of mortality, it’s being driven, I think, largely by the pandemic,” said Robert Anderson, mortality statistics chief at the National Center for Health Statistics.
Some states have been hit particularly hard by the drug overdose crisis, in particular the seemingly uncontrollable amounts of fentanyl flooding across state lines.
In Montana, law enforcement seized 58 times more fentanyl in the first six months of this year than they seized in all of 2019, at least 112,000 fentanyl doses.
In drug addiction hotspots like San Francisco, crime and homelessness have followed close behind the city’s drug problem for years.
One bright spot is that as addiction rates rise, more doctors have started taking addiction patients and prescribing both traditional and new addiction medications to combat the crisis.
Meanwhile, more than half of state governors have taken the drug crisis into their own hands since the Biden administration has failed to significantly stanch the flow of drugs across the border. In April, 26 governors formed the American Governors’ Border Strike Force, which works to secure the border and combat drug trafficking in the absence of more federal action.