PHILADELPHIA — In the first three months of 2020, fatal drug overdoses nationwide rose by about 16%, compared with the same period a year before, new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show.
The new figures cover preliminary reports of fatal overdoses around the country from January through March, the month when the first lockdowns prompted by the coronavirus pandemic began.
Pennsylvania saw about a 4% increase in drug deaths in the 12-month period between March 2019 and March 2020, compared with the previous 12-month period. New Jersey's figures jumped 2% in that time; in Delaware, overdoses skyrocketed by more than 16%.
The numbers alone can't provide a complete picture of how the pandemic has affected people with addiction. But advocates have been closely watching overdose rates since the lockdowns took effect, fearing that the isolation and economic distress brought on by the pandemic might push people to more problematic drug use, potentially accelerating a disturbing trend that had taken hold when the coronavirus struck.
Fatal overdoses have been on the rise since at least last summer, after they had dropped in 2018 — the first decline in decades.
The increase in overdose deaths "predates the pandemic. I wouldn't say the rise, especially what we're seeing in the 12 months ending in March 2020, are due specifically to the pandemic, but in next month's release — for April, May, onward, we'll probably see more of the effect," said Farida Ahmad, the CDC's mortality surveillance lead.
She said fatal overdoses due to opioids have been driving most of the increased deaths. But in some areas, deaths involving stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine have been rising since last summer as well.
Still, at the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, officials have been receiving reports of rising overdoses around the country since the pandemic lockdowns started.
"People are quite isolated — people with substance use disorder really rely on person-to-person contact, on emotional supports that help them not to use," said Elinore McCance-Katz, the Assistant Secretary of Health and Human Services for Mental Health and Substance Use.
"When you're restricted to your home, when you've lost your job and can't work, when your income has declined, you don't have a lot more to do than go back to what you might have been doing before. We know people are relapsing."