New Data: Overdose Deaths Up Nearly 5 Percent; COVID-19 Creates Additional Stressors for Both Patient and Provider Community


(Washington, DC and Oakland, CA – July 20, 2020) – Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released preliminary data showing an increase in drug overdose deaths in 2019. These provisional data showed an estimated 71,999 Americans died from overdoses last year, a nearly five percent increase in numbers of deaths as compared to 2018 and a reversal of the prior year’s small decrease in such deaths.

The 2019 increase was largely driven by a rise in deaths from synthetic opioids, like fentanyl, as well as methamphetamine, and cocaine.

“These new data are a stark reminder that we must fight the dual public health threats of COVID-19 and substance misuse at the same time,” said John Auerbach, President and CEO of Trust for America’s Health. “While understandably focusing attention on the pandemic response, we can’t neglect the devastation caused by substance misuse and overdoses.”

An area of concern is that the COVID-19 pandemic could contribute to more substance misuse and overdose deaths. Preliminary data from the Office of National Drug Control Policy has found a substantial increase in suspected overdoses since the start of stay-at-home orders on March 19th, 2020.  And a new study, out this week by RTI International, found that alcohol sales have surged nationally during the pandemic.

In response to the pandemic, policymakers have eased certain regulations on the delivery of mental health and substance use services.  Telehealth requirements have been altered to allow for increased access through audio-only services and federal authorities have allowed for prescribing of buprenorphine and methadone, drugs t treat opioid use disorder, without an initial in-person examination.

Despite these changes, challenges remain.  COVID-19 has made access to substance misuse treatment more difficult for many.  Millions have lost or will soon lose health insurance coverage as unemployment rises.   Some are fearful of seeking care because of the threat of infection.  And relatively little is being done to address the upstream factors that elevate the risk of substance misuse, such as lack of educational and economic opportunities and racial injustice.

“How many more lives must we lose before we take seriously the need for a comprehensive call to action? We are going in the wrong direction and need to prioritize this larger epidemic within the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Benjamin F. Miller, Chief Strategy Officer for Well Being Trust. “We must begin by investing in solutions that work – those solutions that more seamlessly integrate mental health and substance use disorder treatment into all the places people show up for help.”

Trust for America’s Health and Well Being Trust co-produce the Pain in the Nation series which has tracked alcohol, drug, and suicide deaths nationally since 2017.  For more information visit: