Drug Overdose Fatalities Reach 80,000 in One Year

Paramedics Rushing on a call

A report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dated December 2020 recorded overdose deaths as reaching more than 80,000 total fatalities from May 2019 to May 2020. That’s a significant spike, considering total fatalities for January 2019 to January 2020 were around 70,000. The May 2019 to May 2020 recording is the highest death rate published in one 12-month period since recording began. The significance of this cannot be stressed enough. What does it mean when the United States loses more than 80,000 Americans to drugs in one year?

Drug addiction in America is not going away on its own. Quite the opposite. There’s been an almost uninterrupted year-over-year increase in overdose deaths since 1999. Drug addiction is a public health epidemic that’s getting worse every year. It will continue to worsen until the American people come together and increase their efforts to address it.

A Look at the Data

According to a December 2020 publication from the CDC’s newsroom, over 81,000 people died from drug overdoses between May 2019 and May 2020. The data indicates that, although overdoses were already beginning to climb before the COVID-19 pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic. From former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, “The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard. As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard.”

While the pandemic may have contributed to overdose deaths by undoubtedly making life more challenging and precarious for addicts, there is no indication that overdose deaths will begin to drop as the pandemic comes under control. Opioids are the leading cause of overdose deaths in America, and bringing COVID-19 under control will not do anything substantive to curb opioid addiction.

If opioid addicts do not get help at treatment centers, they will continue to use opioids, pandemic or no pandemic.

From CDC data, overdoses from synthetic opioids (primarily fentanyl) increased by 38.4% in the 12-month period leading up to June 2020. The data also showed that 37 of 38 jurisdictions (jurisdictions that record synthetic opioid deaths) reported an increase in synthetic opioid-related overdose deaths from May 2019 to June 2020.

But it wasn’t just opioid deaths that surged. CDC experts also reported that cocaine deaths rose by 26.5% during the study period, with most of these deaths involving cocaine mixed with fentanyl or heroin. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants also increased, surging by 34.8% during the study period. Similar to Like in the case of cocaine deaths, much of the psychostimulant deaths were caused by psychostimulants mixed with synthetic opioids.

The Opioid Addiction Crisis in America is a National Public Health Emergency

Except for a brief dip in overdose deaths in 2018, drug fatalities have increased every year since 1999. Again according to CDC data, 841,000 people died from drug overdoses between 1999 and 2019. Over 70% of those deaths involved an opioid, indicating the irrefutable presence of a rising opioid crisis in America.

CDC: National Drug-Involved Overdose Deaths
Source: https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

Overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioids, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl) have increased by more than 600% since 1999. Much of this increase began with the massive surge in prescription opioid production, distribution, and prescribing. As prescribers put more Americans on painkillers, that created addictions and chemical dependencies among millions of Americans. When such individuals could no longer get painkillers from their doctors or when their bodies built up a tolerance to their prescriptions, these individuals turned to illicit opioids like heroin and illicitly manufactured opioids like fentanyl and other synthetics to get their fix.

By Drugs: National Drug-Involved Overdose Deaths
Source: https://www.drugabuse.gov/drug-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates

The May 2019 to June 2020 study period indicates a significant uptick in overdose deaths, and there is no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic had something to do with that. But the data is clear. Overdose deaths in America have been increasing since 1999, and there is no indication that these overdose statistics will recede once the pandemic is brought under control. That’s why families, communities, public health organizations, policymakers, and state and federal leaders must direct resources towards helping addicts get into and through drug treatment programs.

Putting Overdose Deaths into Perspective

Paramedics at work
Photo by Massimo Merlini/iStockPhoto.com

Losing 81,000 Americans to drug overdoses in one year is devastating. Not only is that a significant loss of life, but every overdose death is preventable. Drug overdoses are not only a leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., but they are also a leading cause of accident and injury-related death.

One way to put drug overdoses into perspective is to compare such deaths to other causes of preventable death. For example:

  • In 2019, an estimated 38,000 people lost their lives to car crashes (a 2% decline from 2018). More than double the number of people who die in car accidents every year are dying from drug overdoses.
  • In 2017, (the most recent year for which data is available), 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries. Similar to car accident fatalities, gun deaths also represent less than half the total number of Americans who die from drug overdoses each year.
  • Unintentional falls are a leading cause of accidental death. According to CDC data, 39,433 people died from accidental falls in 2018. More than double that number die from drug overdoses each year.
  • Fewer than 20,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 1999. In the past two decades, the death toll has more than quadrupled. The other causes of death; car accidents, firearms, and falls, have not increased anywhere near that rate. In fact, car and fall-related fatalities are occurring less often than before.

An End to an Epidemic of Drug Overdoses

With the death toll going up by more than 400% over the past two decades, there is no doubt that the United States of America is struggling with a dangerous drug addiction epidemic.

When examining the issue, it becomes clear that drug overdose deaths are among the most critical and apparent reasons why drug addicts must get help. That means the family members and loved ones of addicts should do everything they can to help their loved ones seek treatment. Doing so will save tens of thousands of lives each year.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP, LCDC-I



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.