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Drug overdose deaths have risen fastest among non-whites since onset of COVID-19 pandemic: study


Overdose death rate among Blacks exceeds whites for first time since 1999

Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. have surged since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have not affected all groups of Americans equally. A new study finds that death rates among Blacks, Native Americans and Alaskan natives have risen the fastest, and that the overdose rate among Black Americans exceeds that of whites for the first time in more than two decades.

Researchers at UCLA examined data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Center for Health Statistics and other sources to calculate drug overdose death rates per 100,000 population by race and ethnicity from 1999 to 2020, the first year of the pandemic. They found that the 2020 death rate among Black individuals was 36.8 per 100,000, 16.3% higher than among white individuals—the first time that has happened since 1999.

The authors note that the comparative mortality rates mark a sharp reversal from the situation in 2010, when the rate among white individuals was 15.8 per 100,000, twice the 7.9 rate among Black individuals. They also found that Native Americans and Alaskan natives experienced the highest overdose mortality rates in 2020, 41.4 per 100,000, which was nearly 31% higher than that of whites.

Hispanic/Latino individuals experienced the lowest rate in 2020 among the groups assessed—17.3 per 100,000 population—but also the highest year-over-year increase (40.1%.) For all the racial and ethnic groups included in the study, the relative increases in drug overdose death rates in 2020 were greater than any seen between 1999 and 2019.

The authors attribute the overall spike in death rates to the increasing toxicity of illegal drugs such as synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, benzodiazepines, and high-purity methamphetamines. But the exceptionally high rates of increase among non-white groups, they say, means that “drug overdose mortality is increasingly becoming a racial issue in the U.S,” made worse by inequalities in housing and employment and access to preventive care and medications for opioid use disorder.

The study, “Evaluation of Increased in Drug Overdose Mortality Rates in the US by Race and Ethnicity Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was published online March 2 in JAMA Psychiatry.

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Jennifer N. Lee, MD, FAAFP
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