When the final numbers are in, 2021 may surpass 2020 as the most lethal year in U.S. history. It is estimated the death total will be over 3.4 million, up from the 2020 benchmark of 3.38 million.
As a consequence, the CDC is revising American life expectancy — down almost 2 years, to 77.
Obviously, the Covid19 virus, which is currently in the dawn of the Omicron variant, is a major contributory factor to these grim numbers. It has killed 5.4 million people worldwide, 817,000 in the U.S. alone.
But there is a highly disturbing element in the data that merits attention: opioid overdose is in hyper-speed, an epidemic within the pandemic. The CDC announced, for the first time, opioids will kill more than 100,000 Americans in a calendar year.
“The emotional toll of the Covid19 pandemic has fueled a growing mental health, substance abuse, and overdose epidemic in our community,” Dick Batchelor of Project Opioid stated.
“The greatest tragedy might be the demographics of those who are dying,” Batchelor said. “Ironically, young people are least at risk of dying from Covid19, but are at greatest risk from the mental, economic, and emotional toll of this pandemic.”
The numbers are breathtaking. Opioids kill 275 Americans a day: these deaths have more than doubled since 2015. As Batchelor indicated, the age range for these deaths is between 15-24.
To clarify, opioids are defined by Johns Hopkins research as a class of drugs naturally found in the opium poppy plant. Opioids produce a variety of effects on the brain, but they are prescribed to relieve or moderate severe pain, such as might be found in cancer patients. Used with appropriate medical supervision, they can be invaluable to those truly suffering debilitating pain.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is also used for extreme pain; it can also be employed as an anesthetic. But fentanyl is a powerhouse unto itself. It is 50 times more potent than heroin, 100 times stronger than morphine.
Because of this strength, and because it is cheaper to manufacture than heroin, fentanyl has become the undisputed superstar of international drug cartels.
Users prefer it as well — compared to more expensive options, fentanyl offers more bang for the addict’s buck.
That extra kick, however, has a potentially fatal outcome. As little as two milligrams can kill.
“It could be deadly even for people who have a high opioid tolerance,” Medical News Today reported. “In some cases, death occurs so quickly that people are found with a needle still in the site of the injection.”
Calling it “manufactured death,” law enforcement agents noted that fentanyl is often used in combination with other drugs such as cocaine or alcohol, both of which increase the risk of accidental overdose.
An ever present danger for drug users are counterfeit pills. These substances can appear genuine, that is manufactured by a legitimate pharmaceutical company — even experts have trouble spotting a bogus drug.
In September 2021, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a Public Safety Alert about the “alarming increase” in the availability of counterfeit pills. More than 9.5 million of these replicas had been seized in the first nine months of 2021.
“DEA analysis revealed that two out of every five fake pills with fentanyl contain a potentially lethal dose,” the administration reported.
One of the most notable examples of an accidental OD due to a counterfeit substance was the 2016 death of Prince. The 57-year-old musician apparently thought he was ingesting Vicodin, not a fentanyl-juiced substitute. “In all likelihood, Prince had no idea he was taking a counterfeit pill that could kill him,” Minnesota prosecutor Mark Metz said. “Others around Prince also likely did not know the pills were counterfeit containing fentanyl.”
Fundamentally, we understand the picture of opioid overdoses. We know which countries are producing the drugs (chiefly China) and we know the overwhelming amount of fentanyl is coming into the US over our southern border. But understanding does not equal eradication: we have a thorough comprehension of heart disease, but it remains the number one killer on the planet. Behavior change must accompany knowledge.
Unfortunately, political posturing has had a mighty influence on how we deal with fentanyl, the pandemic, and the interaction between the two. One of our central challenges is summoning the will to overcome our different viewpoints — unless we unite behind strategies, 2022 could become an even more lethal year.