New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reveals more than 81,000 men and women suffered fatal drug overdoses during 2020 — a 20% increase over previous years. And among those deaths, researchers now speculate that Black people may have suffered the heaviest toll, with deaths increasing by disproportionately higher rates compared to other ethnicities.
According to data released by the CDC at the end of 2020, the government agency revealed that the 81,000 drug overdose deaths that occurred in the United States over the course of the year were “the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.”
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said then-CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D. “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.”
Redfield said synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were the primary contributor to the increase in overdoses, increasing by 38% over the year before.
While the CDC doesn’t track overdose deaths by race, NPR’s Brian Mann reported that “a growing body of research suggests Black Americans have suffered the heaviest toll.”
Based in part by new research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, Utsha Khatri, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and author of the study, found that COVID-19-related drug overdoses increased dramatically within the Black community over the course of 2020.
“It wasn’t until we started looking at the level of race and ethnicity that we realized Black and brown communities are being disproportionately affected,” she said in an interview with Mann.
In data collected from Philadelphia alone, Khatri’s team found that overdose deaths within the city surged by more than 50% among the city’s Black residents. In comparison, drug overdose fatalities for white residents remained flat or even declined in some instances.
“COVID-19 really just acted as salt in the wounds of health and social inequities, perpetuated by structural racism both in Philadelphia and across the country,” Khatri told Mann.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply exacerbated the inequities of the overdose crisis, which is really, really scary,” Dr. Ayana Jordan, a researcher at Yale University not involved with the Philadelphia study, told Mann.
In her own ongoing study of overdose data collected in California during the pandemic, Jordan is finding similarly alarming results that show a racial disparity in overdose deaths for Black people vs. white people.
Both Jordan and Khatri told Mann that the resulting surge in drug overdoses in Black communities was a by-product of not just increased abuse of illegal drugs like Fentanyl, but also differences with how Black and white drug abusers are treated by the legal system and the police.
“For whites and those who are financially well-off, substance use disorder is often treated as a chronic but survivable illness. That means long-term health care and life-saving medications,” Mann wrote. “By contrast, people of color and poor Americans who experience addiction regularly face arrest and incarceration, while rarely gaining access to high-quality healthcare.”
This creates a recovery system where Black Americans feel “unwelcome” and could even further contribute to increased risk of eventual overdose for drug abusers looking for support and a way out of their addiction.