Oklahoma saw a 22% increase in fatal drug overdoses last year, but it’s not clear how much blame to put on the societal upheaval that came with the COVID-19 pandemic, state and federal health officials said Wednesday.
Counting suicides and unintentional overdoses, the state saw 135 more drug deaths in 2020 than the year before, according to new data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
As bad as that number might seem, the state’s increase wasn’t as dramatic as the national average last year, according to the CDC. Nationwide, overdose deaths hit a record 93,000, a 29% increase from 2019.
“These are deaths that often occur in isolation,” said Jeffrey Dismukes, communications director for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services. “The extent to which COVID may have impacted is not measured but would not be surprising.”
In national media reports about the CDC numbers, some health experts suggested that it would be too much of coincidence not to have something to do with the lockdowns, layoffs and other disruptions that came with COVID. Previous studies had already noted huge increase in the rates of depression and other mental health issues.
“Also, we know that some people were hesitant to seek treatment due to COVID,” Dismukes said.
The CDC report, however, identified another possible culprit: the increasing use of fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid that was originally developed as a pain treatment but has become widely available on the black market and is often mixed with other drugs.
In many cases, overdose victims don’t even know they’re taking fentanyl, as dealers use it as a sort of hidden supplement in other drugs, officials said.
Oklahoma’s increasing death toll appears to be tied primarily to the use of methamphetamine and fentanyl, Dismukes said. If so, the overdose epidemic won’t necessarily subside with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Only two states, New Hampshire and South Dakota, didn’t see an increase in overdose deaths. Vermont had the largest jump, of about 58%. And Kentucky's overdose death toll rose 54%.
Nationwide, the CDC estimates that drug overdoses are killing 250 people per day, or one person every five minutes.
"This is a staggering loss of human life," Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends, told The Associated Press. The United States was already struggling with drug overdoses, but "COVID has greatly exacerbated the crisis," he said.