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Changing nature of the opioid epidemic

October 20, 2022

Two recent articles provide additional insights into the changing nature of the drug overdose epidemic during the COVID-19 pandemic; this information may be useful for states and local communities as they identify ways to use the funds that are consistent with Principle #4: Focus on Racial Equity.

Previous analyses have described the increase in overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic, with an increase of 37% from February 2020 to August 2021, and the rise in overdose deaths among Black populations. Much of this recent increase has been due to methamphetamines and synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Disparities in Overdose Deaths During the COVID-19 Pandemic

New data from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provide insights into how this increase in overdose deaths during the pandemic played out by age, sex, race and ethnicity. Although overdose deaths increased in virtually all subgroups, increases were particularly dramatic for Black and American Indian and Alaska Native people.

By March to August 2021, across sexes, the highest drug overdose death rates were among American Indian or Alaska Native men aged 15 to 34 years and Black and American Indian or Alaska Native men aged 35 to 64 years. 

Additionally, overdose death rates were higher for men than for women in every age and racial and ethnic group.

Substance Use Treatment Admissions During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Another article looked at changes in admissions to substance use treatment facilities that occurred during the COViD-19 pandemic.

Overall, researchers found nearly a 25% reduction in the number of admissions to treatment facilities between 2019 and 2020. Admissions decreased in 43 of the 47 states for which the researchers had data; the decrease was most striking in New Mexico and Hawaii, both of which had decreases of greater than 50%.

When examining the results by racial and ethnic groups, the researchers found that admission rates decreased by over 40% among American Indian and Alaska Native individuals. In contrast, rates decreased by 25% for Black and 20% for White people. Despite the dramatic decrease, admission rates remained highest for American Indian and Alaska Natives.

Principle #4: Focus on Racial Equity

As states and local jurisdictions determine how to spend money from the opioid litigation, they should be mindful of changes that have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. In particular, they should heed the increases in overdose deaths among Black and American Indian and Alaska Native populations, and the decrease in admission to treatment facilities that has also occurred among these groups. Jurisdictions should consider implementing strategies to explicitly address these disparities.