Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Are Increasing More in Black and Indigenous Populations

The CDC reports a 44 percent increase in drug overdose fatalities in Black people and a 39 percent increase in Native Americans from 2019 to 2020

Syringes and other drug paraphernalia
In 2020, 75 percent of all overdose deaths involved an opioid. Dominick Reuter / AFP via Getty Images

A new report from the CDC found that during the first year of the pandemic, drug overdose death rates rose substantially in Black and Native American populations in the U.S. 

From 2019 to 2020, overdose fatalities increased by 44 percent among Black people and 39 percent among Native Americans. In the white population, the overdose death rate increased by 22 percent. 

“Racism, a root cause of health disparities, continues to be a serious public health risk that directly affects the wellbeing of millions of Americans, and, as a result, affects the health of our entire nation,” Dr. Debra Houry, acting principal deputy director of the CDC, said at a press briefing. “The disproportionate increase in overdose death rates among Blacks and American Indian and Alaska Native people may partly be due to health inequities, like unequal access to substance use treatment and treatment biases.”

Overall, 91,799 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in 2020, a 30 percent increase over 2019. That rate of increase dropped to 15 percent in 2021, according to provisional data released by the CDC in May. 

In 2020, 75 percent of all overdose deaths involved an opioid. The new report found that naloxone, a life-saving medicine that reverses opioid overdose, was only administered in 19.8 percent of all drug-related fatalities, though a bystander was present in 41.9 percent of cases. 

Per the new report, evidence of previous treatment for substance use was lowest for Black people, at 8.3 percent, and highest for white people, at 16.4 percent. Income inequality also played a role in overdose deaths. 

"Among Black people, overdose rates in counties with the most income inequality were more than twice those of counties that had less income inequality," said Mbabazi Kariisa, the lead author of the report at the briefing. 

The rate of death for young people rose substantially for both Black and white populations. 

"Younger Black people, 15 to 24 years old, saw the largest increase in overdose deaths—86 percent,” Kariisa told reporters. “Also notable, overdose death rates in Black men over 65 years old were nearly seven times as high as those in older white men.” 

Among white individuals, those aged 15 to 24 also saw the largest relative rate increase, at 34 percent. In all racial groups, a majority of those who overdosed had a history of substance abuse, though white people had the highest rate of substance abuse history, at 78.3 percent. 

Data has indicated that drug use has increased since the Covid-19 pandemic was declared a national emergency in March 2020, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse.  Marijuana and alcohol use rose, especially in individuals experiencing pandemic-related stress and those with anxiety and depression. 

"People face enormous financial difficulties, mass unemployment, isolation, the fear and anxiety and uncertainty of the pandemic itself," said Michael Barnett, an assistant professor of health policy and management at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in 2021, per Alex Daniels of The Chronicles of Philanthropy. "All of those things can test anyone's resilience to addiction."

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