CDC data shows US overdose deaths hit record high in 2020, Pandemic Lockdown Connection

The Covid-19 pandemic isn’t the only thing causing widespread death in America.

The drug overdose death rate rose 30 percent in 2020.

More than 93,000 people died from a drug overdose last year, a horrifying increase.

As someone living in long-term recovery and working to help others achieve their own, I understand the unique challenge the pandemic presented. It was a disastrous recipe for those suffering from substance use disorders.

People in early recovery were hit hardest.

Early recovery is defined by routine. Most rely on supportive recovery residences, service industry jobs, and 12-Step meetings to work on their sobriety. The pandemic and subsequent lockdown completely upended that routine. Many service industries closed causing those most vulnerable to lose their jobs and many could no longer afford to live in their halfway houses.

In addition, the 12-Step meetings, which people were counting on to help keep their tenuous hold on sobriety, went virtual. These Zoom meetings were still valuable, but they lacked the personal connection that is critical for early recovery. And those without internet couldn’t access this resource.

Couple all this with the stress caused by the pandemic, it was simply too much.

Substance use skyrocketed.

Fentanyl, which can be 50 times stronger than heroin, became pervasive. The CDC said fentanyl use was up more than 50 percent nationwide in 2020. It is often mixed on the street with other drugs like heroin and cocaine, making it more potent, but users are rarely aware of what they are getting.

During my career, I’ve seen a progression. People with opioid use disorders would call saying, “I’m addicted to pills.” Then it was, “I’m addicted to heroin.” More recently, they said, “I think there may be fentanyl in what I am taking,” and it scared them. They knew how high the risk for overdose was, and they preferred to avoid fentanyl.

But today’s calls are from people who actively self-identify as being fentanyl users.

They are choosing fentanyl over other substances. That is terrifying. Recently, I received a call from a young man in need who had overdosed three times that week alone.

The pandemic upended the national economy. People lost jobs and the government stepped in to help through stimulus checks. Unfortunately, many people with active substance use disorders, or those who did not have years of recovery and strong support systems in place used those checks to feed their addiction.

After the checks were received, calls for scholarship support at Hanley Foundation increased.

Jobs and housing were lost; services shut down; the streets flooded with new dangerous narcotics; money from the government. These ingredients came together to make the perfectly tragic recipe for overdose. Through the lens of the CDC’s latest overdose data, we caught only a small glimpse of the damage wrought by this epidemic which has been eclipsed by the coronavirus pandemic.

At Hanley Foundation, where we help people with substance use disorders, we fielded countless calls from people who needed help during the pandemic and were able to aide hundreds in gaining access to quality treatment. We are proud of the work we did and the lives we saved. Unfortunately, we can’t come close to meeting the extensive need in our community.

To have any lasting impact on the overdose epidemic, we need massive change from everything from the medical industry to legislature.

At Hanley Foundation, we are doing our part to eliminate addiction through prevention, advocacy and recovery support. I hope you can join us on our mission. We need your support! To donate or for more information, please visit Hanleyfoundation.org or call 561-268-2355.


Hanley Foundation Chief Development Officer Turner Benoit talked with NBC News about the recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data released on US overdose deaths in 2020 and the role the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns had on the recovery community.