During the pandemic, another devastating health crisis was growing

Opioid overdose deaths rose 30% last year, making 2020 the year with the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in the US, according to the CDC. CNN's Elizabeth Cohen reports on this health crisis that continued to plague the US amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

Posted: Jul 18, 2021 10:29 AM
Updated: Jul 18, 2021 10:30 AM


"I just screamed and cried. I knew my brother was gone."

Michelle Branch lost her brother, Craig Elazer, on September 1, 2020, to a fentanyl overdose. He had been receiving support for his addiction, which he had struggled with since he was 12, but a changed world due to the coronavirus pandemic ultimately led to his untimely death.

Branch's loss is one of tens of thousands in 2020. More than 93,000 people died from a drug overdose last year, according to provisional data from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Health Statistics.

This means that 2020 was the deadliest year on record for drug overdoses.

"It's terrible news," said Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and a former deputy commission at the US Food and Drug Administration.

"We've had such a devastating year from the pandemic, and on top of that, a record number of Americans dying of drug overdose."

An accidental mix-up leads to tragedy

Elazer's struggle with addiction lasted most of his life. He would mainly use alcohol, but he would also use other drugs to self-medicate his anxiety. He had gone in and out of rehabilitation centers, though nothing seemed to stick.

Elazer was released from prison "smack dab in the middle of Covid," his sister said, and despite the national trend of job loss, he managed to find work caring for their disabled cousin and find a place to live in the "terrible part of St. Louis."

While he had been participating in Alcoholics Anonymous and was doing a two-step program, restrictions limiting in-person gatherings forced support groups online, and funding dried up for other support programs.

Elazer was not familiar with how to use current technology to access online support groups, which made getting help nearly impossible for him. He stopped going to AA meetings and eventually slipped back into alcohol and drug abuse.

On the night that claimed his life, he most likely thought he had purchased Xanax, his sister said. But what he had purchased -- and ended up using -- was actually fentanyl.

After trying and failing to contact Elazer all evening, Branch and her cousin sent her cousin's son to find out what had happened. The front door to Elazer's apartment had a mail slot where the son could see Elazer's legs on the ground, where he lay motionless. He called an ambulance, but it was too late.

Branch received a call from their cousin that night saying Elazer was "gone."

"I just couldn't comprehend that. And I was like, 'Gone where?' And she says, 'Shelly, I think he's gone.' "

'An all-time high to a new all-time high'

Overdose rates have been increasing since 1999, according to the NCHS. In 2019, there were 70,630 deaths, and compared with that year's rate, deaths in 2020 increased by almost 30%.

"It's a major increase from an all-time high to a new all-time high," said Sharfstein. "And it just reflects so much tragedy, suffering ... and each death is surrounded by a circle of trauma.

"People that cared about that person, their family, their loved ones, their friends. So the impact overall is devastating."

Sharfstein also cited the Covid-19 pandemic as a reason for overdose deaths spiking in 2020. The pandemic caused a swath of "grief, trauma, economic and social dislocation," he said. People who may have been recovering from an addiction, or had never used drugs at all, might find themselves in dire circumstances. Perhaps they had a loved one pass away, or they may have lost their job. Sharfstein says these risk factors may push someone to use drugs.

Track the epidemic in real time

The statistics are grim, but there are measures that can be taken to mitigate the damage.

Sharfstein is calling for another comparison to Covid-19, but in this case, a comparison of the urgency and inventiveness of response efforts.

He stressed that tracking the problem is an important step in addressing it, and noted that while data collection efforts were robust with "maps every day, we knew how many new cases, who got the new cases, who's getting tested, who's getting vaccinated," data collection for overdoses hasn't been as urgent.

"Here we are in July, and we're just getting the data for 2020," he said. "We can do a lot better with data and use that data, just like we did with Covid, to focus our energy on the populations, the groups and the areas that need the most attention."

Medical treatment strategies that rose to prominence over the course of the pandemic may also be used to address the overdose crisis. For example, telemedicine use skyrocketed over the pandemic, and Sharfstein thinks telemedicine could play an important role in addressing addiction-related health disorders.

Sharfstein thinks cases of overdose deaths may decline as the country moves into a less urgent phase of the pandemic. However, he stresses that any improvement does not mean that the problem has fixed itself, and that current resources are "not sufficient."

"A major priority for 2021 is going to be to follow the evidence to do the same thing we did with Covid," he said. "Use science, use evidence, use compassion, and get the treatments and supports to people who need them."

For Branch, there is no bringing her brother back. But after he passed away, "a calm came over me. Because he's free."

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 615923

Reported Deaths: 7776
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1279061807
Ramsey53670911
Dakota47738479
Anoka43706466
Washington27959298
Stearns22889227
St. Louis18436321
Scott17835139
Wright16676153
Olmsted13691104
Sherburne1222596
Carver1085749
Rice8349112
Clay831892
Blue Earth775544
Crow Wing695099
Kandiyohi676485
Chisago633255
Otter Tail594687
Benton590998
Goodhue489774
Douglas482081
Mower481134
Winona468552
Itasca466068
Isanti448967
McLeod438761
Morrison431362
Beltrami414763
Nobles412850
Steele404219
Polk392273
Becker391257
Lyon367754
Carlton358958
Freeborn356835
Pine339723
Nicollet336145
Mille Lacs317456
Brown310140
Le Sueur302928
Todd291233
Cass290633
Meeker269344
Waseca244223
Martin238833
Roseau213021
Wabasha20963
Hubbard200041
Dodge19393
Renville184746
Redwood179741
Houston178116
Cottonwood168324
Wadena166023
Fillmore162910
Faribault158420
Chippewa154838
Pennington154320
Kanabec148629
Sibley148310
Aitkin140637
Watonwan13709
Rock130519
Jackson123912
Pipestone117326
Yellow Medicine115620
Pope11477
Murray108010
Swift107818
Koochiching96919
Stevens93011
Clearwater90017
Marshall89618
Lake85421
Wilkin84813
Lac qui Parle76222
Big Stone6144
Grant5958
Lincoln5903
Mahnomen5679
Norman5539
Unassigned51393
Kittson49522
Red Lake4037
Traverse3865
Lake of the Woods3514
Cook1760

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 380378

Reported Deaths: 6132
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk59750647
Linn21796343
Scott20698251
Black Hawk17114320
Woodbury15528230
Johnson1490486
Dubuque13670215
Dallas1161499
Pottawattamie11500177
Story1102148
Warren599092
Cerro Gordo569498
Clinton568194
Webster556499
Sioux521974
Muscatine4995106
Marshall496779
Des Moines494678
Jasper460373
Wapello4436124
Buena Vista434540
Lee414859
Plymouth407182
Marion380178
Henry304637
Jones302657
Bremer296963
Carroll288952
Boone277435
Crawford277341
Benton266155
Washington263251
Dickinson252246
Mahaska237551
Jackson226443
Kossuth223866
Clay218327
Delaware215743
Tama215272
Winneshiek201537
Buchanan199934
Page196422
Cedar195423
Hardin194744
Wright193640
Fayette191643
Hamilton191451
Harrison183773
Clayton174558
Butler171935
Madison170119
Floyd166342
Mills166224
Cherokee163338
Lyon161541
Poweshiek160136
Allamakee157452
Hancock155434
Iowa151224
Winnebago147931
Calhoun146113
Cass142855
Grundy141333
Jefferson138235
Emmet137741
Sac133920
Shelby133238
Louisa131749
Franklin131423
Union130135
Appanoose129849
Humboldt127526
Mitchell127343
Chickasaw127117
Guthrie126432
Palo Alto116024
Montgomery107138
Howard106222
Clarke104024
Monroe102333
Keokuk100932
Ida96135
Adair90732
Davis89825
Pocahontas87622
Monona87031
Greene80611
Osceola79617
Lucas79523
Worth7768
Decatur6729
Taylor67112
Fremont65310
Van Buren57818
Ringgold57524
Wayne57123
Audubon54014
Adams3594
Unassigned80
Rochester
Cloudy
67° wxIcon
Hi: 75° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 67°
Mason City
Mostly Cloudy
70° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 70°
Albert Lea
Cloudy
66° wxIcon
Hi: 80° Lo: 65°
Feels Like: 66°
Austin
Cloudy
66° wxIcon
Hi: 78° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 66°
Charles City
Partly Cloudy
70° wxIcon
Hi: 76° Lo: 64°
Feels Like: 70°
Tracking multiple rain chances
KIMT Radar
KIMT Eye in the sky

Community Events