Drug Overdose Deaths Increased During Early Days of Pandemic

Ralph Ellis

October 16, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

A report from the CDC says deaths from drug overdoses went up sharply during the first part of 2020 compared to the previous year, and experts say isolation caused by the coronavirus pandemic is the cause.

The CDC said 19,416 people died from drug overdoses from January through March ― an increase of 3,000 over the first three months of 2019.

If the trend doesn't change, the United States will record more than 75,500 drug overdose deaths in 2020, compared to last year's record of 70,980, the CDC says.

The CDC report doesn't specifically say the coronavirus pandemic is causing the increase in deaths, but health experts do.

"There's absolutely no doubt that the distress caused by COVID-19 is shifting people more into having addiction disorders, is worsening those that have it and is blocking people from being able to maintain recovery," Dr. Paul Earley, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, told Fox News.

The pandemic caused some treatment facilities to close or limited visits by people with drug problems, thus reducing the face-to-face communication needed for effective treatment.

"The COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect storm," Earley said. "Addiction treatment requires human interaction and hope and we've had to stop the interactions associated with addiction treatment."

Jennifer Austin, who coaches people with substance abuse disorder in Ogdensburg, New York, told NPR in August that people in recovery need structure and community. Having to quarantine because of COVID-19 makes that impossible.

"The longer people had to isolate it was relapse, relapse, overdose, relapse, overdose," Austin said.

"We tell people (coping with addiction) not to isolate, that's bad, it's a red flag," Austin said. "The pandemic comes and we're literally told that we're supposed to be isolating, like, stay away from people."

"Every indication we have in terms of stress, in terms of surveys about increasing [drug] use during the pandemic, basically everything is pointed in the wrong direction," Brett Giroir of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services told NPR in an August podcast.


CDC. "Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts."


CDC. "Percent of drug overdose deaths by quarter and demographic characteristics: United States 2018-Q1 through 2020-Q1."


American Hospital Association. CDC: Drug overdose deaths up 4.6% in 2019.

Fox News. "Coronavirus pandemic creates 'perfect storm' for addiction in United States."


NPR. "U.S. Sees Deadly Drug Overdose Spike During Pandemic."