In 2020, Drug Overdose Deaths Hit a Record High

03/19/21 09:40AM EDT

Below is a complimentary Demography Unplugged research note written by Hedgeye Demography analyst Neil Howe. Click here to learn more and subscribe.

In 2020, Drug Overdose Deaths Hit a Record High - drugs 2793133 1920

Opioid overdose deaths in the U.S. have surged during the pandemic. In 2020, the death toll from all drug overdoses climbed to its highest level ever, with opioids accounting for 73% of those deaths. (Bloomberg)

NH: Last summer I noted that, after a brief reprieve in 2018, opioid overdose deaths had begun rising again throughout 2019 and into early 2020. (See “Overdoses on the Rise.”)

I predicted that this trend would only get worse as long as the pandemic continued.

The latest CDC data show that unfortunately this is indeed what’s happened. In 2020, the U.S. saw the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded in a single year.
In all, drug overdoses killed nearly 84,000 Americans from August 2019 to July 2020. That’s 23% more than in the 12-month period ending a year earlier. Opioids were behind more than 61,000, or 73%, of those deaths. And again, it was synthetic opioids that drove the increase in deaths, rising 38% in 2020 compared to a year before. Overdose deaths involving psychostimulants, such as methamphetamine, rose nearly 35%.

In 2020, Drug Overdose Deaths Hit a Record High - Mar18
The geography of overdose deaths is changing. Historically, deaths involving fentanyl have been concentrated east of the Mississippi. But the largest increases in synthetic opioid deaths (+98%) over the past year were in 10 Western states.

The number of ER visits due to drug overdoses also increased in 2020. Weekly counts of the number of visits in 2020 were up to 45% higher compared to the same week in 2019. Visits for opioid overdoses, specifically, increased about 29%. Though the number of ER visits overall plummeted by 43% in March and April, visits for drug overdoses fell only slightly (about 4%) in those months before increasing again.

With Covid-19 dominating the news, the opioid crisis has largely fallen off the radar. But make no mistake, it’s worse than ever.

What's driving the rise? Possibly it's the growing isolation, dislocation, stress, and boredom that has accompanied the pandemic. All indicators of emotional distress levels remain elevated. (See "Americans Continue to Struggle with their Mental Health" and "Soaring Youth Demand for Mental Health Care.") In-person social services have been harder to access, and many Americans who need counseling are unable or unwilling to seek it. And some of the rising death toll may to be due to intentional overdosing--that is, due to misreported suicide. We strongly suspect that the suicide rate has risen over the past year.
Official vital statistics data for 2020 will not be available any time soon. We will report on any new evidence shedding better light on causation.

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Neil Howe is a renowned authority on generations and social change in America. An acclaimed bestselling author and speaker, he is the nation's leading thinker on today's generations—who they are, what motivates them, and how they will shape America's future.

A historian, economist, and demographer, Howe is also a recognized authority on global aging, long-term fiscal policy, and migration. He is a senior associate to the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C., where he helps direct the CSIS Global Aging Initiative.

Howe has written over a dozen books on generations, demographic change, and fiscal policy, many of them with William Strauss. Howe and Strauss' first book, Generations is a history of America told as a sequence of generational biographies. Vice President Al Gore called it "the most stimulating book on American history that I have ever read" and sent a copy to every member of Congress. Newt Gingrich called it "an intellectual tour de force." Of their book, The Fourth Turning, The Boston Globe wrote, "If Howe and Strauss are right, they will take their place among the great American prophets."

Howe and Strauss originally coined the term "Millennial Generation" in 1991, and wrote the pioneering book on this generation, Millennials Rising. His work has been featured frequently in the media, including USA Today, CNN, the New York Times, and CBS' 60 Minutes.

Previously, with Peter G. Peterson, Howe co-authored On Borrowed Time, a pioneering call for budgetary reform and The Graying of the Great Powers with Richard Jackson.

Howe received his B.A. at U.C. Berkeley and later earned graduate degrees in economics and history from Yale University.

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