Pandemic fueled resurgence of overdose deaths, CDC data shows

In this Sunday, May 10, 2020, file photo, Sharon Rivera adjusts flowers and other items left at the grave of her daughter, Victoria, at Calvary Cemetery in New York, on Mother's Day. Victoria died of a drug overdose in Sept. 22, 2019, when she just 21 years old. According to a report released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday, drug overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Deaths from drug overdoses surged in Pennsylvania as well as nationwide last year, CDC data released Wednesday showed. The number of overdose deaths in Pennsylvania increased 16.4 percent in 2020 over 2019 — jumping from 4,444 to 5,172.

The resurgence of overdose deaths reverses a trend of decreasing overdose deaths since the peak of the opioid epidemic in 2017, when 5,456 people died from overdoses in Pennsylvania, federal data shows.

The CDC’s data shows that nationally, overdose deaths hit 93,000 last year, a 29 percent increase over 2019, and the worst year ever for overdose deaths nationally.

The impact of the COVID pandemic and the social isolation caused by pandemic mitigation efforts certainly played a role in the resurgence of overdose deaths, said Deb Beck, director of the Pennsylvania Drug and Alcohol Service Providers Organization of Pennsylvania.

The scope of the epidemic has somewhat been masked by the fact that the widespread availability of Naloxone, a drug which is used to halt the effects of drug overdoses, has saved thousands of lives, Beck said.

Estimates range greatly but state data suggests that Naloxone has been used between 20,000-40,000 times a year since Gov. Tom Wolf in 2018 declared an opioid epidemic public health emergency and then-Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine, used those emergency powers to make Naloxone more widely available, Beck said.

The state’s move to launch a prescription drug monitoring program in 2016 made it more difficult for drug overs to get opioids by doctor-shopping, Beck said. But that was like “squeezing a balloon” and increased demand for street drugs, she said.

“Even without a pandemic, we're gonna have people on the street driving up demand for Fentanyl and methamphetamine,” she said. “I think we're in trouble here. And we're going to pay a price for it,” she said.

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, is the chairman of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania, which held hearings across the state to shed light on the scope and breadth of the opioid epidemic.

He said the new federal data reinforces the anecdotal reports that state officials have been hearing from local officials.

“COVID-19. kind of put everything on the back burner as far as any progress” in slowing the opioid epidemic, he said. “If you stop and think about what went on, I mean, people would have been locked up. And, you're just compounding the problems that they have. People had problems getting treatment. Transportation was a problem. Access to hospitals was limited for counseling and everything else. It all fits together,” he said.

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.


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CNHI PA State Reporter

John Finnerty reports from the Harrisburg Bureau for the New Castle News and other Pennsylvania newspapers owned by CNHI. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @cnhipa.

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