Opioid deaths in Illinois increased by 50% during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic

Opioid overdose deaths rose dramatically during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study shows.

Researchers at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, found that opioid deaths in their state increased by 50 percent in the first half of 2020 compared to the previous year.

From January to June 2020, including the first wave of the pandemic, 11.1 in every 100,000 residents in the state died from an accidental opioid overdose.

That’s a 48 percent increase from the 7.5 in every 100,000 seen in the first half of 2019.

The pandemic turned out to be a step backwards in the US fight against the opioid epidemic, with a record 93,000 people dying of drug overdose in America last year.

Opioid-related overdose deaths in Illinois rose 48% last year (dark blue line) as the nation stepped backwards in the fight against the opioid epidemic

Opioid-related overdose deaths in Illinois rose 48% last year (dark blue line) as the nation stepped backwards in the fight against the opioid epidemic

Researchers, who published their findings Friday in JAMA Health Forum, collected data on opioid deaths from across the state from July 2017 to June 2020.

The three-year data was broken down into separate six-month periods and calculated as a rate per 100,000 inhabitants.

A total of 6,058 people overdosed and died from opioids during the three-month period, or nine in every 100,000 state residents.

The period with the highest number of opioid deaths was the early pandemic period, where 1,286 deaths were recorded.

However, the numbers were already rising before the pandemic, with 1,128 deaths – or 9.5 in every 100,000 people – attributed to opioid overdoses in the period from July to December 2019.

No previous period included in the study had a higher death rate.

The first half of 2019 was the lowest point for opioid deaths during the study period.

Only 843 deaths were recorded during that period, or 7.5 for every 100,000 Illinois residents.

It was an 8.5 percent drop from the 8.2 deaths per 100,000 population recorded in the first half of the previous year.

The demographics of opioid deaths also changed during the pandemic, researchers found.

The first half of 2020 marked the first time that white people were responsible for less than 50 percent of deaths during that period.

From January to June last year, 48.5 percent of deaths were whites, while black and Hispanic residents made up 48.8 percent of the nearly 13,000 deaths.

Deaths from opioids have long been a problem in America, but 2020 was the worst year of all.  Last year, more than 93,000 people died from an overdose, a record.  Former CDC director Robert Redfield pointed to life disruptions caused by the pandemic as the reason why (file photo)

Deaths from opioids have long been a problem in America, but 2020 was the worst year of all.  Last year, more than 93,000 people died from an overdose, a record.  Former CDC director Robert Redfield pointed to life disruptions caused by the pandemic as the reason why (file photo)

Deaths from opioids have long been a problem in America, but 2020 was the worst year of all. Last year, more than 93,000 people died from an overdose, a record. Former CDC director Robert Redfield pointed to life disruptions caused by the pandemic as the reason why (file photo)

The data matches trends reported by health officials during the pandemic that opioid deaths spiked last year and the racial gap in opioid deaths widened.

“The disruption to everyday life caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has hit people with substance use disorders hard,” said Dr Robert Redfield, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“As we continue to fight to end this pandemic, it is important to remember that different groups are affected in different ways. We have to take care of people who suffer unintended consequences.’

A record 93,331 overdose deaths were included nationally last year, and a majority of deaths can be attributed to opioid use.

Black and Hispanic people are disproportionate more likely to die from an opioid overdose than white people, who make up less than 35 percent of the U.S. population but more than 40 percent of deaths.

Inequality widened further during the pandemic last year, which saw the proportion of deaths among minorities increasing.

.