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CDC: Fentanyl-related overdose deaths rose nationally during pandemic

Illegally manufactured fentanyl has replaced street heroin in many parts of the country, fueling overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. File photo by Maxal Tamor/Shutterstock
Illegally manufactured fentanyl has replaced street heroin in many parts of the country, fueling overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. File photo by Maxal Tamor/Shutterstock

Dec. 14 (UPI) -- Overdose deaths linked with illegally manufactured fentanyl increased across the United States during the COVID-19 pandemic, but particularly in Western states, where they nearly doubled, according to data released Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Nationally, between July 2019 and December 2020, illegal fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by nearly 33%, the data showed.

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Nearly 13,400 such deaths were recorded during July and December 2020, compared to just over 10,100 in the same period the year before.

This increase roughly coincides with the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in much of the United States, the agency said.

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Western states Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah and Washington saw the largest rise in illegal fentanyl-related overdose deaths -- about 94%, to 1,852 from 955 over the periods studied.

Deaths increased by 64% in the Southern states Arkansas, Delaware, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, D.C., and West Virginia.

They also rose "sharply" -- by 33% -- in the Midwestern states Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Ohio and South Dakota, but by less than 4% in the Northeastern United States, CDC said.

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"Rapid increases in illicitly manufactured fentanyl-involved deaths during 2019-2020, which accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggest increases in [drug] distribution and exposure, consistent with law enforcement drug supply data," the CDC researchers wrote.

Illegal manufactured fentanyl has become more widely available in the United States since the mid-2010s, accounting for approximately 10% of all drugs submitted to labs for analysis, according to a report from the Drug Enforcement Administration.

From May 2020 through April of this year, more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths were reported in the United States, with 64% of them involving synthetic opioids such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl, based on CDC data released in November.

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Prescription fentanyl, which, for example is intended for use in palliative care, to relieve pain in people dying from cancer, is being illegally manufactured to replace street drugs such as heroin in many parts of the country, CDC researchers said.

The illegal forms of the drug now account for up to 80% of all overdose deaths nationally.

Nearly three-fourths of the overdose deaths related to illegal fentanyl between July 2019 and December 2020 occurred in men and about 10% involved people age 25 and younger, CDC said.

About two-thirds of overdose deaths related to the drugs occurred in the decedent's home.

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"Urgent action is needed to slow and reverse rapid increases in drug overdose deaths involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl and other drugs," the CDC researchers wrote.

This includes "enhancing access to substance use disorder treatment and expanding harm reduction approaches that address risk factors ... [such as] improving and expanding distribution of naloxone to persons who use drugs and their friends and family," they said.

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