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CDC Reports Record High of More Than 100,000 Drug Overdose Deaths

For the first time in U.S. history, there were more than 100,000 deaths from fatal drug overdoses within a year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC). 

New data from the CDC, released on 17 November, reported that there were an estimated 100,306 overdose deaths between April 2020 and April 2021.  

“As we continue to make strides to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country,” said U.S. President Joe Biden in a statement on Wednesday.  

According to the data, deaths caused by psychostimulants and opioids, including synthetic products such as fentanyl, increased throughout the year-long period.  

“Before 2016, more Americans died annually from heroin overdoses than from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl,” The Guardian reported. “...In the past year, fentanyl was involved in more than 60 percent of the overdose deaths.” 

Fentanyl can be as much as 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, according to the CDC, meaning that even small doses of the drug can make it fatal. “It is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, which makes drugs cheaper, more powerful, more addictive, and more dangerous.” 

The agency estimates that more than 150 daily deaths are linked to synthetic opioids.  

Along with the anticipated spread of more dangerous street drugs that are cheaper to manufacture, NPR also reported, “Experts blame the continuing surge on the spread of more dangerous street drugs and on disruptions to drug treatment programs caused by the pandemic,” NPR added.

According to The Washington Post, the new data indicate that fatal overdoses increased by an estimated 28.5 percent during the 12-month period. “The people who died—275 every day—would fill the stadium where the University of Alabama plays football. Together, they equal the population of Roanoke, Virginia.”

Although the Biden administration is attempting to beat back this statistic with increased distribution of naloxone, a drug that can reverse an overdose, and fentanyl test strips, as well as expanding prevention and treatment programs, actual expansion efforts of resources have been uneven given the variety of different state regulations. Naloxone is also known by the brand name Narcan.  

“Access to naloxone often depends a great deal on where you live,” said Rahul Gupta, drug czar for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.  

In April, drug manufacturer Pfizer announced that there would likely be a disruption in their supply of its single-dose injectable naloxone product; by July, it listed availability as “depleted,” and come August production was halted altogether thanks to a manufacturing issue. According to a Filter magazine article from July, this supply disruption triggered the worst naloxone shortage since 2012 

“The Opioid Safety and Supply Network (OSSN) Buyer’s Club is the largest source of naloxone distributed directly to affected communities—accounting for 1.3 million doses in 2020 alone. And the Buyer’s Club has relied solely on naloxone from Pfizer at a specially negotiated price,” Filter reported. “... Insiders confirm that the shortage has devastated community-based naloxone distribution, as the Buyer’s Club is the single largest distributor in most states.” 

But Pfizer isn’t the only naloxone manufacturer in the market. They were just the most affordable. 

OSNN Buyer’s Club purchases supplies and then distributes them to more than 100 harm-reduction programs throughout the United States. Since 2012, OSNN negotiated more affordable pricing by buying naloxone directly from Pfizer, but the shortage left harm-reduction groups to purchase the life-saving supplies at higher prices from other pharmaceutical firms. And at higher prices, groups can afford fewer doses.  

“Community groups working to prevent overdose deaths are now paying up to 30 times more for the life-saving medication—at a time when more Americans than ever are dying from overdoses,” The Guardian reported in October. Where naloxone kits previously cost about $2.50 each from Pfizer, groups were recently charged $37 for generic and $75 for Narcan 

According to The Guardian, Pfizer’s manufacturing woes were resolved and it expects to be fully restocked by the end of 2021.  

While some pharma companies, including Narcan producer Emergent BioSolutions, offer discounts to national, state, and local government agencies for the product, those same discounts are not offered to harm-reduction groups.  

The full scope of the shortage and its impact on overdose fatalities will not be known for a while, however, advocates estimate that the CDC’s record announcement of the April 2020 to 2021 window could be eclipsed in next year's report by thousands. “Maya Doe-Simkins, an organizer for the Buyer’s Club, estimated that the 250,000-dose backorder so far could result in at least 11,000 overdose deaths.” the Post reported