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Overdose Deaths Reach New Peak at 72,000 for 2019; Trends Suggest COVID-19 Will Increase Toll in 2020

Available for Interview: What Can be Done to Reduce Unacceptably High Rates of Overdose Deaths, Especially in the Time of COVID-19?   

16 July, 2020 — Nearly 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2019, according to provisional data released yesterday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — an increase of 5 percent from 2018. The total is a new peak for overdose deaths in the country, and wiped out the slight decrease in overdose deaths that took place in 2018, the first drop in 25 years. Early indications for 2020 are that overdose deaths are continuing to rise nationally, with COVID likely playing a significant role in the increase.  Drug deaths have risen an average of 13 percent so far this year over last year, according to mortality data from local and state governments collected by The New York Times, covering 40 percent of the U.S. population.  

“Tragically, the CDC’s 2019 data shows that increase in drug overdose deaths started before COVID-19, and 2020 data so far suggests the pandemic will accelerate the trend.” said Daliah Heller, Director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies. “For people who use drugs, COVID-19 is a pandemic upon an epidemic. States need to take urgent action to remove unnecessary barriers to treatment and harm reduction supplies that are leaving people who use drugs without access to life saving resources. There’s much that can be done immediately, such as reducing barriers to telehealth and supporting mail-order naloxone. But long term we will never make significant progress until we confront the rotten foundation of this country’s approach to substance use, ending the decades long failed drug war built on racism and punishment, and instead make health, dignity, support and care the bedrock principles of our response to the overdose epidemic.” 

Daliah Heller heads up the Overdose Prevention Program at Vital Strategies and is available for interviews and can address the following issues:  

  • What has caused such a steep increase in the number of overdose deaths in the United States in the past decade?  
  • What is the role of COVID in rising number of drug overdoses in 2020
  • What can state governments do to help reduce overdose and mass incarceration during this pandemic?  
  • What can be done about the systemic and structural racism that has plagued the criminal justice and heath care system and been laid bare by COVID and overdose crisis?  
  • What can be done to address the rising number of overdose deaths in the Black community and the racial disparities in drug arrests and criminalization?
  • How can we get the overdose reversal drug naloxone and medications like methadone and buprenorphine to people in need and address the racial disparities and access to Black people and other communities of color? 
  •  What can be done to reduce overdose and COVID for vulnerable populations like the homeless, people behind bars and those who do sex work?  

Higher Ground Harm Reduction, Reynolds Strategies, Harm Reduction Coalition and Vital Strategies have created  fact sheets and resources for people who use drugs, sex workers and other marginalized people in the COVID-19 outbreak. Later this month, the organizations will release a toolkit made up of informative fact sheets, and tools for people who use drugs and stakeholders likely to engage with people who use drugs. 

About Vital Strategies  

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible. 

To find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat

About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program 

In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives.  

Media Contacts:  

Tony Newman; 646-335-5384
Christina Honeysett; 914-424-3356