Nearly 110,000 people died last year of drug overdoses in the United States, according to preliminary federal data published on Wednesday, a staggering figure that nonetheless represented a plateau after two years of sharp increases.
The preliminary count of 109,680 overdose deaths was only slightly higher than the figure for 2021, when 109,179 people were estimated to have died, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overdose deaths had climbed significantly that year and the prior year, increasing by roughly 17 percent in 2021 and 30 percent in 2020.
Dr. Rahul Gupta, the director of the White House’s Office of National Drug Control Policy, said in a statement on Wednesday that the Biden administration’s overdose strategies were working. “We’ve expanded treatment to millions of Americans, we’re improving access to naloxone to reverse overdoses and we’re attacking the illicit fentanyl supply chain at every choke point,” he said.
Still, the newly released data offered the latest indication of the catastrophic effects of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is often mixed with stimulants and other drugs and can go undetected before a drug sample is ingested. Synthetic opioids contributed to about 75,000 overdose deaths last year, according to the C.D.C.
The six-figure death toll was another signal that the nation’s efforts to unwind the damage from an increasingly complex and deadly drug supply are still far from complete. Drug overdoses have contributed to a decrease in life expectancy in the United States and are one of the nation’s leading causes of death. Other drugs in the nation’s supply that can be mixed with fentanyl, such as the cheap and addictive animal tranquilizer xylazine, have heightened the dangers of opioid use.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy last month designated xylazine as an “emerging drug threat,” a move that requires the Biden administration to organize a governmentwide plan to respond to the drug’s spread.
The count of overdose deaths in 2022 was an estimate and may change as the government reviews more death records from states, officials cautioned. A final count for 2022 will not be published until later this year or early next year, a C.D.C. spokesman said.
Since the 1970s, the number of drug overdose deaths has climbed every year, with the exception of 2018. The sharp increases in 2020 and 2021 “were driven for the most part by the major changes of fentanyl availability around so many parts of the country,” said Dr. Wilson M. Compton, the deputy director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, which is part of the National Institutes of Health.
The new data showing deaths leveling off last year was a “potential bending of this historically high curve,” said Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Still, Dr. Ciccarone said, “one can’t be utterly optimistic that this is a signal of a permanent change.” He warned of the continuing trend of overdose deaths among unsuspecting people using counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl.
Many of the interventions that the Biden administration has called for in a bid to reduce overdose deaths are loosely organized in a strategy known as “harm reduction,” which encourages the use of tools that make drug consumption safer. President Biden is the first president to endorse the strategy.
A key part of the strategy is naloxone, an overdose-reversing medication that can now be sold over the counter. Nabarun Dasgupta, a scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has researched naloxone use in the United States, said some states that had been particularly aggressive in deploying the medication, such as Arizona, Utah and West Virginia, saw decreases in overdose deaths last year.
An effective addiction treatment for opioid users that can be taken at home, buprenorphine, is now easier to prescribe. But the medication is still significantly underprescribed, including for Black patients, a recent study found.
Drug checking tools, such as fentanyl test strips that alert users to the presence of the drug in a sample, have also saved lives, public health experts say.
“When people know, they can make different choices or safer choices,” said Colleen Daley Ndoye, the executive director of Project Weber/Renew, an organization in Providence, R.I., that works with drug users and distributes fentanyl test strips.
The group plans to open the first supervised drug consumption site legalized by a state early next year. Drug checking machines will most likely be a component of the site, Ms. Daley Ndoye said.
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