Government overdose statistics show that drug overdose deaths increased during the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, especially deaths involving opioids.

Among the many challenges associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been an unfortunate increase in drug overdose deaths in the United States. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in the 12 months ending in September 2019, there were an estimated 70,036 overdose deaths. This rose to 90,237 overdose deaths in the 12 months ending September 2020. Overdose statistics have also revealed trends related to the drugs most commonly leading to overdose and areas of the country that were most affected.

What Factors Led to an Increase in Overdose Deaths?

The type of drug involved in these deaths seems to be a critical factor. According to CDC data, most of the increase in fatal overdoses came from fentanyl, with a 38.4% increase in deaths from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, seen from mid-2019 to mid-2020. Overdose death due to cocaine also grew by 26.5%, whereas overdose deaths on psychostimulants, including methamphetamine, rose by 34.8%.

While the United States as a whole saw a 28.8% increase in overdose deaths throughout 2020, certain regions of the country were more affected. For example, both the Southeastern and Southwestern United States were particularly hard-hit by overdose deaths, with California seeing a 40.5% increase in deaths and Louisiana seeing a 54% increase. Overdose statistics also show that Florida and South Carolina saw substantial increases in drug deaths, with increases of 42.4% and 45.3%, respectively.

In addition, the Appalachian region was particularly devastated by drug overdose deaths in 2020, with the following percentage increases seen in states in this area:

  • Kentucky: 50%
  • West Virginia: 47.3%
  • Virginia: 41.3%
  • Tennessee: 41.7%

COVID-19 and Drug Abuse

The connections between the COVID-19 pandemic and overdose deaths are significant. As research from Illinois has indicated, stay-at-home orders during the pandemic caused a disruption in treatment services for some people, like needle exchange programs and methadone clinics. This can lead to relapse, and people who return to using their usual doses of drugs after a period of sobriety may overdose due to reduced tolerance to the drug. The pandemic also caused a change in illegal drug supply, leading some people to begin using powerful, deadly drugs like fentanyl.

Social isolation can also play a role in overdose deaths. For example, experts explain that whereas people may have gathered together before the pandemic, stay-at-home orders resulted in drug users consuming drugs alone, with no bystanders to intervene in case of an overdose. The traumatic stress associated with a pandemic and social isolation has also been found to increase substance abuse. This means that people may use drugs as a way to cope with the pandemic, thereby putting them at risk of overdose.

COVID-19 and Alcohol Abuse

People may turn to drugs like opioids or cocaine to cope with the stress of a pandemic, but they may also cope by drinking alcohol, which can be equally problematic. In fact, a recent study found that as a result of the pandemic, people increased alcohol consumption in general as well as heavy drinking, and they experienced more problems related to alcohol use. This finding is not surprising in light of a recent study by The Recovery Village, which found that among people who wanted to or were trying to stop drinking, 64.9% had used alcohol as a mechanism for coping with stress.

Ways The Recovery Village Can Help

If you or a loved one struggled with substance abuse and a co-occurring mental health disorder amid the pandemic, The Recovery Village is here to help. We have multiple locations across the country, and we also offer teletherapy services so you can connect to treatment virtually. Contact us today to determine the best course of treatment for you. Reaching out for help may literally save your own life or that of a loved one.

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Editor – Melissa Carmona
Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Read more
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Medically Reviewed By – Jenni Jacobsen, LSW
Dr. Jenni Jacobsen is a licensed social worker through the Ohio Counselor, Social Worker and Marriage and Family Therapist Board. She has over seven years working in the social work field, working with clients with addiction-related and mental health diagnoses. Read more

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Overdose deaths accelerating during COVID-19.” December 18, 2020. Accessed May 4, 2021.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts.” April 14, 2021. Accessed May 4, 2021.

Mason, Maryann, Welch, Sarah, Arunkumar, Ponni, Post, Lori Ann, & Feinglass, Joseph. “Notes from the Field: Opioid Overdose[…]�October 6, 2020.” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, March 12, 2021. Accessed May 4, 2021.

Pollard, Michael, Tucker, Joan, & Green, Harold. “Changes in Adult Alcohol Use and Cons[…]ndemic in the US.” JAMA Network Open, September 29, 2020. Accessed May 4, 2021.

Taylor, Steven, Paluszek, Michelle, Rachor, Geoffrey, McKay, Dean, & Asmundson, Gordon. “Substance use and abuse, COVID-19-related distress, and disregard for social distancing: A network analysis.” Addictive Behaviors, March 2021. Accessed May 4, 2021.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.