Nearly 110,000 people died last year from drug overdoses in the United States, according to preliminary federal data published on Wednesday, a staggering figure that nevertheless represented a plateau after two years of sharp increases.
The preliminary tally of 109,680 overdose deaths was only slightly higher than the figure for 2021, when an estimated 109,179 people died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths increased significantly that year and the year before, increasing approximately 17 percent in 2021 and 30 percent in 2020.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement Wednesday that the Biden administration’s overdose strategies were working. “We have expanded treatment to millions of Americans, we are improving access to naloxone to reverse overdoses, and we are attacking the illicit fentanyl supply chain at every bottleneck,” he said.
Still, newly released data offered the latest indication of the catastrophic effects of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is often mixed with stimulants and other drugs and can go unnoticed before a sample of the drug is ingested. Synthetic opioids contributed to about 75,000 overdose deaths last year, according to the CDC
The six-figure death toll was another sign that the nation’s efforts to repair the damage caused by an increasingly complex and deadly drug supply are still far from complete. Drug overdoses have contributed to a decreased life expectancy in the United States and are one of the leading causes of death in the country. Other drugs in the nation’s supply that can be mixed with fentanyl, such as the inexpensive and addictive animal tranquilizer xylazine, have increased the dangers of opioid use.
Last month, the Office of National Drug Control Policy designated xylazine an “emerging drug threat,” a move that requires the Biden administration to put together a government plan to respond to the spread of the drug.
The overdose death count in 2022 was an estimate and may change as the government reviews more death records from states, officials warned. A final tally for 2022 won’t be released until later this year or early next, a CDC spokesperson said.
Since the 1970s, the number of drug overdose deaths has increased every year, with the exception of 2018. The sharp increases in 2020 and 2021 “were driven for the most part by large changes in the availability of fentanyl in so many parts of the country,” said Dr. Wilson M. Compton, deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
The new data showing that deaths leveled off last year was a “potential bending of this historically high curve,” said Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Still, Dr. Ciccarone said, “one cannot be entirely optimistic that this is a sign of permanent change.” He warned of the continuing trend of overdose deaths among unsuspecting people using counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl.
Many of the interventions that the Biden administration has called for in an attempt to reduce overdose deaths are loosely organized into a strategy known as “harm reduction,” which encourages the use of tools that make drug use safer. . President Biden is the first president to endorse the strategy.
A key part of the strategy is naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug that can now be sold without a prescription. Nabarun Dasgupta, a scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched the use of naloxone in the United States, said some states that had been particularly aggressive in rolling out the drug, such as Arizona, Utah and West Virginia, saw declines. in overdoses. deaths last year.
An effective addiction treatment for opioid users that can be taken at home, buprenorphine, is now easier to prescribe. But the drug is still significantly underprescribed, even for black patients, a new study found.
Drug monitoring tools, such as fentanyl test strips that alert users to the presence of the drug in a sample, have also saved lives, public health experts say.
“When people know, they can make different or safer decisions,” said Colleen Daley Ndoye, executive director of Project Weber/Renew, an organization in Providence, Rhode Island, that works with drug users and distributes fentanyl test strips.
The group plans to open the first state-legalized supervised drug use site early next year. Drug checking machines are most likely a component of the site, said Ms. Daley Ndoye.