U.S. overdose deaths top 100,000 in one year for first time, CDC reports

Through the many waves of COVID, it turns out there was a constant, one Kathy Leonard measures in purple.

Leonard’s son Jonathan died of a heroin overdose seven years ago. Each August, on International Overdose Awareness Day, she organizes the planting of what usually turns out to be a couple of thousand purple flags, the display marking the annual overdose death toll in Massachusetts.

Wednesday, the CDC released figures for the overdose death toll during the initial 12 months of the pandemic. And for the first time in an annual period, it crossed 100,000. Kathy Leonard was not surprised.

“Substance use disorder can be a disease of isolation,” Leonard said. “We were very isolated during COVID, especially that first year. People were alone more. They were home more. And access to treatment was not what it could or should have been.”

Because of COVID’s contagiousness, in-person support meetings were canceled, for example.

“I know that some of the treatment facilities were not letting new patients in,” Leonard said. “Sometimes, when you’re alone and in isolation, that camaraderie is very important to people being able to stay strong, especially early in recovery.”

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“We had hope that this story would be different,” said Dr. Miriam Komaromy, an addiction medicine specialist at the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center. “We’ve made a lot of efforts both locally and nationally to try and expand outreach to people with addiction to opioids and other substances, recognizing that COVID was going to be devastating. But we haven’t done enough. It’s just horribly tragic news about the unbelievable magnitude of loss of life.”

Synthetic opioids, especially fentanyl, accounted for many of the deaths.

“Fentanyl is an incredibly powerful opioid, many times more powerful than heroin,” Komaromy said. “And because it’s manufactured illicitly, it’s also very variable in its potency. So when someone is using fentanyl they don’t know is this the same kind I used yesterday or is it something different? And that can be a fatal distinction, unfortunately.”

Komaromy said fentanyl only became a factor in the Northeast about five years ago but now dominates the street drug scene here.

At this point, patients with substance use disorder are getting better treatment than during the height of the pandemic, but Komaromy said there’s a lot of work ahead.

“We have a lot of catching up to do,” she said. “But we’re dealing with all the problems people had before the pandemic that they were using drugs to cope with and now there’s been so much loss and isolation and devastation for people during this period that it feels just kind of overwhelming to think of how much support people need to cope at this point.”

“I felt like every little bit of progress we were making got shoved under the rug during COVID,” Leonard added. “Here we are with the death toll up over 100,000.”

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