Estimating the uncertain effect of the COVID pandemic on drug overdoses

Ali Moghtaderi*, Mark S. Zocchi, Jesse M. Pines, Arvind Venkat, Bernard Black

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Objective U.S. drug-related overdose deaths and Emergency Department (ED) visits rose in 2020 and again in 2021. Many academic studies and the news media attributed this rise primarily to increased drug use resulting from the societal disruptions related to the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. A competing explanation is that higher overdose deaths and ED visits may have reflected a continuation of pre-pandemic trends in synthetic-opioid deaths, which began to rise in mid-2019. We assess the evidence on whether increases in overdose deaths and ED visits are likely to be related primarily to the COVID-19 pandemic, increased synthetic-opioid use, or some of both. Methods We use national data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on rolling 12-month drug-related deaths (2015–2021); CDC data on monthly ED visits (2019-Septem-ber 2020) for EDs in 42 states; and ED visit data for 181 EDs in 24 states staffed by a national ED physician staffing group (January 2016-June 2022). We study drug overdose deaths per 100,000 persons during the pandemic period, and ED visits for drug overdoses, in both cases compared to predicted levels based on pre-pandemic trends. Results Mortality. National overdose mortality increased from 21/100,000 in 2019 to 26/100,000 in 2020 and 30/100,000 in 2021. The rise in mortality began in mid-to-late half of 2019, and the 2020 increase is well-predicted by models that extrapolate pre-pandemic trends for rolling 12-month mortality to the pandemic period. Placebo analyses (which assume the pandemic started earlier or later than March 2020) do not provide evidence for a change in trend in or soon after March 2020. State-level analyses of actual mortality, relative to mortality predicted based on pre-pandemic trends, show no consistent pattern. The state-level results support state heterogeneity in overdose mortality trends, and do not support the pandemic being a major driver of overdose mortality. ED visits. ED overdose visits rose during our sample period, reflecting a worsening opioid epidemic, but rose at similar rates during the pre-pandemic and pandemic periods. Conclusion The reasons for rising overdose mortality in 2020 and 2021 cannot be definitely determined. We lack a control group and thus cannot assess causation. However, the observed increases can be largely explained by a continuation of pre-pandemic trends toward rising synthetic-opioid deaths, principally fentanyl, that began in mid-to-late 2019. We do not find evidence supporting the pandemic as a major driver of rising mortality. Policymakers need to directly address the synthetic opioid epidemic, and not expect a respite as the pandemic recedes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere0281227
JournalPloS one
Issue number8 August
StatePublished - Aug 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General


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