Save Lives Now

Overdose Deaths Have Increased During COVID-19 

photo of a woman wearing a mask

The worsening of the drug overdose epidemic, along with the impact of COVID-19 prevention protocols, such as social distancing and quarantine, makes it more difficult for public health agencies and social services to treat those most at risk of overdose. Urgent actions for innovative strategies within the public health community are required to facilitate continued access to treatment.

Drug Overdose Deaths Increased During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Preliminary data indicates that the increases in drug overdose deaths appear to have accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic.

By the Numbers

  • Preliminary data show that 81,230 overdose deaths occurred in the United States from June 2019 through May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
  • Synthetic opioids (likely illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths.
  • Overdose deaths involving cocaine increased by 26.5 percent. These deaths are likely linked to co-use of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin.
  • Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, increased by 34.8 percent.

Preventing overdoses and deaths is critical

Medical and public health professionals, first responders, harm reduction organizations, and other community partners each have a critical role to play in overdose prevention. As the overdose epidemic continues to evolve, expand, and accelerate, the following are critical to preventing overdoses and deaths from overdose:

  • Naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose, if administered in time
  • Early detection of overdose outbreaks in communities
  • Early interventions for people who are at highest risk for overdose
  • Expand prevention and response activities
Health Alert Network (HAN) Advisory

CDC issued a HAN advisory to alert public health departments, healthcare professionals, first responders, harm reduction organizations, laboratories, and medical examiners and coroners to:

  • Substantial increases in drug overdose deaths across the United States
  • A concerning acceleration of the increase in drug overdose deaths
  • Changing geographic distribution of overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids
  • Significant increases in overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine
  • Recommendations for communities when responding to the evolving overdose crisis

Frontline Workers Saving Lives

photo of an ambulance

Preventing overdose deaths starts with getting information about life-saving actions to people who provide services to populations at high risk of overdose.

The need for essential services for those most at risk of overdose and the need to expand prevention and response activities such as:

Public health departments can:

  • Raise awareness about the critical need for bystanders to have naloxone on hand and use it during an overdose [PDF]
  • Provide messaging to community groups about the changing drug supply and risks for overdose
  • Link people who are at risk for overdose with care and track their retention in care programs
  • Monitor trends in drugs and overdoses, using local, state, and federal data systems

Healthcare providerscan: 

  • Talk to patients about the changing illicit drug supply and risks for overdose
  • Prescribe naloxone to individuals at risk for overdose or those with a history of opioid use disorder (OUD)
  • Provide medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) or treatment for Stimulant (cocaine, methamphetamine) use disorder
  • Provide active referral-to-treatment options and recovery support services
  • Expand locations in which overdose prevention education and take-home naloxone are provided

Harm reduction organizationscan:

  • Increase overdose prevention education to people who use drugs, their friends, and others likely to witness or experience an overdose
  • Prioritize naloxone distribution to people who use drugs following periods of abstinence and during transitions where opioid tolerance may have waned
  • Implement public health-based drug checking services and drug supply surveillance in line with applicable state and local laws
  • Partner with public safety and public health to obtain and disseminate the latest information on local drug supply and overdose trends
Expanding Access to Treatment for Substance Use Disorders

Opioid Use Disorder

During the COVID-19 public health emergency, the Federal Government has made it easier to obtain medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD) through telehealth.  Treatment with FDA-approved medications methadone, buprenorphine, or naltrexone are lifesaving and the most effective forms of treatment for opioid use disorder. SAMHSA’s Buprenorphine Practitioner Locator can help identify a qualified practitioner who can prescribe buprenorphine.

Stimulant Use Disorder

There are no FDA-approved medications to treat stimulant use disorders. The most effective treatments for stimulant use disorders are psychosocial therapies. For additional information about treatment strategies, see SAMHSA’s Treatment for Stimulant Use Disorders.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline is a great resource to share with someone who may have a substance use disorder. Call 1-800-662-HELP (4537).

Supporting States and Communities in Prevention

The following activities are in line with CDC commitment to prevent overdose. CDC is committed to preventing overdoses. CDC launched a multiyear cooperative agreement, Overdose Data to Action (OD2A) in 2019 with 66 recipients comprising state, territorial, county, and city health departments. OD2A supports recipients in collecting timely and complete data on drug overdoses and using those data to inform prevention and public health response efforts. Learn more about CDC’s response to the opioid overdose epidemic and strategies to prevent drug overdose.

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