WI Contributing Writer

Drug overdose mortality rates have increased sharply in the U.S. since the COVID-19 pandemic began in 2020. 

In addition, for the first time in over 20 years, the overdose mortality rate among Black individuals was higher than that among white individuals, according to the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry.

The study published on March 2 said that since 2015, overdose deaths had risen most rapidly among Black and Latino communities. The pandemic has since disproportionately worsened many health, social, and economic outcomes.

Overdose deaths per 100,000 among Black individuals increased from 24.7 in 2019 to 36.8 in 2020, which was 16.3% higher than that for White individuals (31.6) in 2020,” study authors wrote. 

This is a reversal of the overdose mortality gap among Black and White individuals noted in 2010 when the rate per 100,000 among White individuals (15.8%) was double that of Black individuals (7.9%).

“These shifts reflect that Black communities have experienced higher annual percentage increases in overdose deaths compared with their White counterparts each year since 2012,” study authors wrote.

“In 2020, Black individuals had the largest percentage increase in overdose mortality (48.8%) compared with White individuals (26.3%).”

Study authors say several factors contribute to the increase in Black individual overdose rates, including “toxic illicit drug supply.”

They wrote that recent studies suggest that the use of potent synthetic opioids and benzodiazepines, and high-purity methamphetamine contributes to the worsening of the U.S. overdose crisis. 

“The high—and unpredictably variable—potency of the illicit drug supply may be disproportionately harming racial and ethnic minoritized communities, with deep-seated inequalities in living conditions (including stable housing and employment, policing and arrests, preventive care, harm reduction, telehealth, medications for opioid use disorder, and naloxone access) likely playing a role,” study authors wrote.

They continued that recent incarceration is a risk factor for overdose mortality, which disproportionately impacts people of color—adding that recently incarcerated individuals are likely to have reduced opioid tolerance and less knowledge of shifts in drug potency.

While the study didn’t explicitly mention fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) named the substance as the primary killer in the nation’s opioid overdose crisis. 

The CDC said that most recent cases of fentanyl-related harm, overdose, and death in the U.S. are linked to illegally made fentanyl. 

It is sold through illegal drug markets for its heroin-like effect. In addition, it is often mixed with heroin or cocaine as a combination product—with or without the user’s knowledge—to increase its euphoric effects.

Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids were nearly 12 times higher in 2019 than in 2013. More than 36,000 people died from overdoses involving synthetic opioids in 2019. 

According to the CDC, the latest provisional drug overdose death counts through May 2020 suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the JAMA Psychiatry study, authors wrote that drug overdose mortality is increasingly becoming a racial justice issue in the U.S., which the pandemic has exacerbated. 

They added that providing individuals with a safer supply of drugs, closing gaps in health care access, and ending routine incarceration of individuals with substance use disorders can quell the crisis.

Sarafina Wright –Washington Informer Staff Writer

Sarafina Wright is a staff writer at the Washington Informer where she covers business, community events, education, health and politics. She also serves as the editor-in-chief of the WI Bridge, the Informer’s...

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