Drug overdose deaths have surged during the pandemic, with cases in Arizona rising between 30% and 40%, according to Centers for Disease Control figures.

Nationally, deaths rose 30% in 2020 to a record 93,000. Only South Dakota and New Hampshire bucked the trend, with increases especially high in the West.

Deaths from both stimulants like methamphetamine and opiates set records. The synthetic opioid fentanyl led the way.

The report did not break out deaths on a county-by-county basis. However, in 2019, the Gila County opiate overdose rate was above the state average — which in turn is above the national average.

Nationally in 2020, COVID-19 still racked up four times as many fatalities as all the drug overdose deaths combined. However, the overdoses dwarfed other major sources of death, like car crashes and gun deaths.

The drug deaths cost Americans an estimated 3.5 million years of life, while COVID-19 cost 5.5 million years of life, according to estimates by the CDC, which take into account the age of the people who died.

Moreover, the American life expectancy actually dropped by a dismaying 1.5 years last year, driven by both COVID and the surge in overdose deaths.

Drug overdose deaths have soared in the past decade, driven by a big surge in the use of prescription painkillers — with an epidemic of both heroin use and deaths from the much more dangerous synthetic opiate fentanyl. Doctors dish out about 137,000 prescriptions for opiate painkillers every month in Arizona, according to state Department of Health Services.

The record-breaking surge in deaths in 2020 came despite a national effort to cope with the plague of overdose deaths by tracking prescriptions, increasing treatment programs, distribution of naloxone treatments to doctors, police and paramedics and cracking down on doctors who overprescribe. Experts say the abuse of prescription drugs has now morphed into a thriving black market in opiates.

Fentanyl has proved an efficient killer — with 39% of the overdoses proving fatal. However, meth overdoses also set a record nationally, with 41% of the reported overdoses proving fatal. Cocaine overdoses are also fatal 39% of the time, but use has not jumped like it has with meth and fentanyl.

Heroin overdoses are fatal 15% of the time and prescription opiates just 8% of the time.

However, many of the overdoses are driven by mixing multiple drugs. Fentanyl often shows up in combination with other drugs and plays a role in 60% of drug deaths.

The 20,000 additional U.S. deaths from overdoses represented the biggest single-year increase in 20 years. The share of deaths caused by drug overdoses has grown from 1.9% to 2.8% of all deaths since 2015, according to CDC data, in a report by the Commonwealth Fund.

Overdose deaths spiked at the start of the pandemic, with the stress, fear and lockdowns that involved. Overdoses declined by midyear — but remain much higher than in 2020.

The surge affected most areas of the country, with total overdose deaths in Arizona increasing between 30% and 40%. In California, deaths rose between 40% and 50% and in Nevada by 10% to 30%.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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