Drug Overdose Deaths Spiked To 88,000 During The Pandemic, White House Says

Apr 1, 2021
Originally published on April 2, 2021 10:35 am

Drug deaths spiked dramatically during a period that includes the first six months of the pandemic, up roughly 27% compared with the previous year, the acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said Thursday.

"We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020," Regina LaBelle told reporters during a morning briefing. "Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase."

That number, based on provisional data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is sharply higher than the figure reported by the CDC as recently as last December.

The data suggests the dangerous upward trend of drug overdose fatalities continues. According to LaBelle, Americans age 35 to 44 appear most at risk.

The White House also unveiled a seven-part plan designed to bend the curve downward, which officials said would be implemented over the next year.

"Our first priority is expanding access to quality treatment and recovery support services," LaBelle said.

One piece of that agenda will involve removing bureaucratic hurdles that prevent many doctors from prescribing buprenorphine. The drug is proven to help patients with opioid use disorder avoid relapses.

It's unclear when the change will be made, however.

"I don't have a specific timeline," LaBelle said. "We know it's urgent."

The Biden administration drew criticism in January when it reversed a Trump administration order making buprenorphine more widely available on an emergency basis.

The White House plan drew praise from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who represents one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic.

"I have long pushed to expand access to medication-assisted treatment," Hassan said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the White House to get this done."

In the briefing Thursday, LaBelle outlined a vision for addiction policy that would shift the government's response away from law enforcement and drug arrests toward health care and treatment.

The plan notes that President Biden has called for an end to incarceration for individuals struggling with substance use disorder.

The White House has also drawn criticism, however, for moving slowly to appoint key members of its drug policy team. The administration still hasn't named an individual to permanently lead the Drug Enforcement Administration or the ONDCP.

LaBelle said much of the Biden team's drug plan can be implemented immediately while appointments are still being made and confirmed. But the acting director also acknowledged delays in policymaking because of key positions that remain unfilled.

She pointed to uncertainty over how the Justice Department will handle supervised drug use sites operated by nonprofit groups, designed to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of disease.

In 2019, the Trump administration sued to block such a program in Philadelphia. LaBelle said it remains unclear how the Biden administration's DOJ will view "safe" drug-use sites.

"Unfortunately...for today's news, a lot of those decisions have to be held off until we have people in place at the Department of Justice and...they're not in place yet," LaBelle said.

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The White House said today that the number of drug deaths has risen again to a devastating new record. Data from the CDC shows more than 88,000 Americans died over a 12-month period. Officials blame the pandemic and the continued spread of fentanyl. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann reports.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: The acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Regina LaBelle, briefed reporters on the drug death told this morning, describing an unprecedented spike of nearly 27%.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

REGINA LABELLE: We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020. Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase.

MANN: LaBelle's cited preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She said people in their mid-30s appear most vulnerable. LaBelle then unveiled a new White House strategy designed to reduce drug deaths that she says will be implemented over the next year. Top priorities include a shift away from law enforcement and drug arrests toward a new focus on health care and harm reduction. The plan includes funding that would help supply sterile syringes to drug users. The White House also hopes to get better, more affordable treatment to people of color, who've seen a steep rise in overdose fatalities during the pandemic.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LABELLE: We know that longstanding racial inequities have dominated our drug policy and led to inequitable access to health care, as well as inequitable treatment in the criminal justice system.

MANN: Beau Kilmer, head of the RAND Drug Policy Center, praised the Biden team's plan, especially the focus on harm reduction and funding for new addiction research.

BEAU KILMER: Given the terrible situation we're dealing with, these priorities make a lot of sense.

MANN: But Kilmer says the overdose trend is so grim, getting it under control will require new strategies, including controversial approaches like allowing people with addiction to use drugs in supervised settings.

KILMER: We really need to think outside the box. Obviously, we need to be putting more resources into increasing access to high-quality substance use treatment. But that's not going to be enough.

MANN: The White House has not signaled an openness to that kind of harm reduction strategy. There are also still unanswered questions about how quickly the Biden team can move to implement its drug policy agenda. One key sticking point now is a bureaucratic hurdle that prevents most doctors from prescribing buprenorphine. It's a medication widely known to prevent opioid relapses. LaBelle said it's clear the rule needs to be changed, but she couldn't say when it will happen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LABELLE: I don't have a specific timeline. I just know that we know it's urgent.

MANN: LaBelle pointed out the Biden administration has only been in office a little over two months, but this latest startling increase in drug deaths will add to pressure on the White House to move quickly.

Brian Mann, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.