(NewsNation) —As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States, killing over 1 million people to date, another pandemic was boiling underneath the surface: drug overdose deaths.
In 2021 a record 107,000 Americans died of drug overdose deaths. That’s almost one every five minutes, setting a new U.S. record.
The deadly drug fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, was the main culprit behind the death count. Just a few milligrams of fentanyl, equivalent to a few grains of sand, can be fatal. Some who overdose on the drug do so unwittingly, as it can be cut into other drugs like meth and heroin.
Many health experts believe the COVID-19 pandemic played a role in increasing the number of overdose deaths.
“The opioid epidemic was a problem way before the pandemic, but now you add the virus and you have social isolation, you have economic pressure, which has been widespread since the beginning of the pandemic. These two reasons are enough to cause a relapse in drug use and could have contributed to the increase in overdoses,” psychiatrist Dr. Yalda Safai told “NewsNation Prime.”
Safai added the temporary closure of some drug treatment centers during the pandemic shutdown also played a role in drug overdoses.
“However, all of this cannot fully explain what we are seeing today,” she said. “The pandemic alone is not to blame for the uptick in overdoses.”
The opioid epidemic progressed in three phases, Safai said. The first phase was in the 1990s and involved mostly prescription opioids. Then in 2010, an increase in heroin use launched the second phase. In 2013 a new phase began to emerge, she said, the era of fentanyl.
“A growing share of the deaths we see today continue to come from overdoses involving fentanyl that is oftentimes mixed with other drugs such as methamphetamine,” Safai said.
Fentanyl is typically found as a fine white powder that can be easily mixed into other drugs and even stamped into counterfeit pills, Safai said.
“Because fentanyl is so much cheaper to produce and distribute than heroin, it makes it more appealing to traffickers and dealers, but because it’s so strong and potent, even a small amount can mean the difference between a user getting a normal fix and a fatal overdose,” Safai said.