The pandemic’s devastating impact on drug overdose deaths in the United States hit people of color the hardest, with rates rising the most among young black people, according to a federal report released Tuesday that analyzed overdose data by race, age and age Income.
Overall, drug overdose deaths increased 30 percent from 2019 to 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report said. Black deaths increased 44 percent, about twice as much as deaths among whites (22 percent) or Hispanics (21 percent). Deaths among American Indians and Alaska Natives rose 39 percent.
Measured as a percentage of the population, deaths among blacks in 2020 were higher than any other racial or ethnic group — 39 per 100,000, compared to 31 among whites, 36 among Native Americans and Alaska Natives, and 21 among Hispanics.
“The disproportionate increase in overdose death rates among Black, Native American, and Alaska Native people may be due in part to health inequalities, such as:
The breed outbreaks were based on data from Washington, DC and 25 states that had completed analysis. The study included data from some states where overdose death rates were increasing, such as Georgia, Kentucky and Maine, but not others with high rates, such as Florida, New York and Michigan. CDC researchers said the trends they saw in this data nonetheless reflected statistical breed outbreaks across the country.
Nationwide, drug overdose deaths have continued to rise since 2020, although the rate has slowed somewhat.
The impact on different breeds became even more apparent when age was taken into account. In 2020, the overdose death rate among men aged 65 and older was almost seven times higher in black men than in white men. Among black people aged 15 to 24, the overdose death rate increased by 86 percent from 2019 to 2020.
The study’s authors said the deaths were mostly caused by illegally manufactured fentanyl, with some caused by combining other drugs with the opioids, such as methamphetamine and cocaine.
The pandemic has exacerbated the spiral, the authors said. With people young and old isolated from social services, peers, families and treatment centers, not to mention a drop in income for many, drugs became a distraction and a comfort.
The results clearly demonstrated racial disparities in access to substance abuse treatment. Although the data showed that treatment was sparse among all those who died, the proportion of people receiving treatment for substance abuse was lowest among blacks (8.3 percent), or about half that of whites receiving treatment searched and later died.
Income inequality also widened this gap, the report says.
Perhaps surprisingly, the report states that overdose death rates were generally higher in counties with more treatment services and mental health providers. Again, the effects varied by race. For example, among Native Americans and Alaska Natives and Blacks, the 2020 rate was more than double in counties with at least one opioid treatment program than in counties lacking such services.
Among counties with comparatively more treatment options than others, the overdose death rate increased 49 percent from 2019 to 2020 among blacks, compared to 19 percent among whites.
“Just because there is the availability of services doesn’t mean those services are actually accessible,” said Mbabazi Kariisa, the report’s lead author and a public health scientist with the CDC’s Overdose Prevention Unit. She noted that limited shipping and insurance options could be problematic. In addition, fear of stigma and a pervasive distrust of the healthcare system could also be important factors.
The report also found that in geographically large counties, a treatment center might be located in a densely populated center, which would make access difficult for people in distant areas. However, establishing a causal relationship between the presence of a clinic and death rates is difficult: a county with high rates of substance abuse and overdose deaths is more likely to have a clinic.