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Drug Overdoses In The U.S. Jumped Nearly 30% Last Year

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

2020, the year of the pandemic and of an attempt to overthrow democracy, was also a year of calamity in the opioid crisis. The National Center for Health Statistics says the United States set a record. Drug overdose deaths rose dramatically to 93,000 people. Kaiser Health News correspondent Aneri Pattani is covering this. She's on Skype. Good morning.

ANERI PATTANI: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Trying to get my brain around that number, 93,000. It's the size of a good-sized army. It's the size of a small city. What went wrong here?

PATTANI: So this is the highest number of overdose deaths in well over a decade. And it's a 30% increase from 2019, which is the highest jump in a single year almost ever on record. And sort of beyond just the shock value of that particular year, we're talking about this is showing a concerning trend continuing because the U.S. saw overdose deaths dip for the first time in a while in 2018, but then they went back up in 2019. And even in the early months of 2020, before we had COVID hit, these deaths were going up as well. So this full-year data is just showing us that this concerning trend is continuing.

INSKEEP: Thank you for telling me that it's not just the pandemic here. When I hear the number, I immediately think the pandemic was stressful for people, people were at home, people were unemployed. You could imagine more drug abuse coming out of that difficult situation. But you're telling me that something more is happening.

PATTANI: So it's both, right? This situation was occurring beforehand. We had an opioid epidemic. We had an addiction epidemic with other drugs as well - stimulants, alcohol. And that - all the factors that were contributing to that continued. And then the pandemic made everything worse. You know, we had increased isolation from other people. Some recovery programs went online or stopped altogether. You had, as you mentioned, job loss, housing instability, losing loved ones - all these factors that just took a crisis that was already bad and made it worse.

INSKEEP: I'm wondering if part of the increase had to do with the difficulty of medical care. We were in a circumstance where hospitals were overwhelmed, where there was a reluctance for people to go to hospitals or reluctance to take in patients, sometimes a physical difficulty even finding a bed. Are there situations where maybe an overdose led to death that might not have been a death in a different year?

PATTANI: I think it's hard to say. But certainly, all the experts that I've spoken with said the changes to the medical system played a role. Even if it's not, you know, that individual who's overdosing not going to the ER, there are people who might have gone to treatment facilities but didn't because these are large, inpatient facilities with lots of people living under one roof. And they were worried about COVID and, understandably, you know, becoming infected. So there are people who may have stayed at home and not sought treatment or even maybe not sought counseling. For some people, when counseling moved online, that doesn't work for them as much. So certainly, the changes to the medical system played a role here. How much of a role? I don't think we know yet.

INSKEEP: So what are the financial costs of so many overdose deaths and, I'm sure, so many overdoses that don't quite lead to death?

PATTANI: I mean, it's hard to estimate, right? You're talking about a huge cost in terms of human lives, lost productivity, all the people who are affected by one person who dies. And, I think, a lot of times, we don't think about it this way, but when you compare the cost upfront to treating someone, it might be lower if we think about all these costs adding up. But right now, for a person who maybe shows up without insurance and is trying to get a medication for opioid use disorder, they could be paying anywhere from $50 to over $500. And if that's not something they can afford, then that treatment is not accessible to them. And even if, you know, the hospital ER has this great addiction program, like a lot of experts told me, if it's not affordable, you can't make it work.

INSKEEP: Aneri Pattani comes to us as part of NPR's health reporting partnership with Kaiser Health News. Thanks so much.

PATTANI: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.