US annual drug overdose deaths surged to more than 100,000 for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic, a crisis driven mainly by fentanyl and exacerbated by a flood of fake online pills, officials said Wednesday.
Experts say people with substance use disorders have been hit hard by daily life disruptions, while authorities are seizing record numbers of counterfeit and sometimes deadly medicines from Mexico.
"As we continue to make strides to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country," President Joe Biden said in a statement.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, the country saw 100,306 fatal overdoses, an increase of 28.5 percent compared to the same period the previous year -- equal to one death every five minutes.
Overall, opioids accounted for 75,673 of the 100,306 fatalities, with the vast majority from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.
"It's time to face the fact that this crisis seems to be getting worse. We need all hands on deck," health secretary Xavier Becerra said in a call with reporters.
"We see it in the faces of grieving families and all those overworked caregivers. You hear it every time you get that panic 911 phone call.
"You read it in obituaries of sons and daughters, who left us way too soon... and since Covid-19 hit, it's gotten worse."
Deaths from psychostimulants like methamphetamine, as well as from natural and semi-synthetic opioids, such as prescription pain medication, and cocaine were also up.
Covid-19 killed around 508,000 people in the same time frame, according to Our World in Data.
"Many of the challenges left behind by the pandemic will actually make people more vulnerable to mental illness and substance use disorders," Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said in the briefing.
At the same time, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has warned Americans about prescription pills available online that are made to look like real Oxycontin, Vicodin, Xanax or Adderall, but contain lethal doses of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
The DEA has seized more than 14 million pills this year, with the vast majority produced in Mexico from chemicals supplied by China.
The fake pills are widely available on social media and e-commerce platforms.
In 2019, the latest year for which national data was available, heart disease was the leading cause of death, with some 660,000 fatalities, followed by cancer, with around 600,000 deaths, and unintentional injuries, at 175,000.
- Life-saving nasal spray -
Biden's administration meanwhile announced the release of a "model law" it wants states to adopt that would widen access to naloxone, a life-saving nasal spray that reverses overdoses.
"I believe that no one should die of an overdose simply because they didn't have access to naloxone," said Rahul Gupta, director of national drug control policy.
"Sadly, today that is happening across the country."
The act includes provisions that would grant immunity to individuals who administer naloxone, require physicians to co-prescribe it when prescribing opioids, ensure health insurance covers the medicine, and seek to educate more people about the benefits.
Tom Wolf, the governor of Pennsylvania, said Wednesday his administration wanted ordinary citizens to carry the medicine, which is available to the public throughout the state's pharmacies.
In his statement, Biden touted a stimulus package that passed in March and delivered $4 billion to expand services for substance abuse and mental health.