3 States Saw Large Increase in Overdose Deaths, Which Topped 100K in U.S. Over Last Year

An estimated 100,000 people died of drug overdoses in the U.S. over the past year, with three states seeing estimated death tolls increased more than 50 percent.

The estimate comes from death certificate data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based on 98,000 reports between May 2020 and April 2021, the Associated Press reported.

The data also showed dramatic increases in the death toll of overdoses, the largest in Kentucky with a 55 percent rise, West Virginia with a 62 percent rise and Vermont with a 70 percent rise. Only four states did not see any increase — Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey and South Dakota.

Experts attributed this increase to the COVID-19 pandemic not allowing people struggling with addiction to seek out treatment.

They also said a large factor was the growing presence of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply. Fentanyl is a highly lethal opioid that some drug dealers mix with other drugs. According to the AP report, fentanyl surpassed heroin five years ago as the drug involved with the most overdose deaths.

Drug overdoses are now more frequent than deaths from car crashes, guns, flu and pneumonia.

Katherine Keyes, a Columbia University expert on drug abuse issues, told the AP the number is "devastating."

"It's a magnitude of overdose death that we haven't seen in this country," Keyes said.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

drug overdose, drug awareness
CDC data shows an estimated 100,300 people have died from drug overdoses over the past year, showing an increase from previous years. Above, family members of people who have died from overdosing on opioids mark International Overdose Awareness Day on August 21 in Binghamton, New York. Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

President Joe Biden called it "a tragic milestone" in a statement, as administration officials pressed Congress to devote billions of dollars more to address the problem.

"This is unacceptable and it requires an unprecedented response," said Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of National Drug Control Policy.

The CDC previously reported there were about 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020, the highest number recorded in a calendar year. Robert Anderson, the CDC's chief of mortality statistics, said the 2021 tally is likely to surpass 100,000.

"2021 is going to be terrible," agreed Dr. Daniel Ciccarone, a drug policy expert at the University of California, San Francisco.

Minnesota saw an increase in overdose deaths of about 39 percent, with estimated deaths rising to 1,188 in May 2020 through April 2021 from 858 in the previous 12-month period.

The area around the city of Mankato has seen its count of overdose deaths rise from two in 2019, to six last year to 16 so far this year, said police Lt. Jeff Wersal, who leads a regional drug task force.

"I honestly don't see it getting better, not soon," he said.

Among the year's victims was Travis Gustavson, who died in February at the age of 21 in Mankato. His blood was found to show signs of fentanyl, heroin, marijuana and the sedative Xanax, Wersal said.

Gustavson was close to his mother, two brothers and the rest of his family, said his grandmother, Nancy Sack.

He was known for his easy smile, she said. "He could be crying when he was a little guy, but if someone smiled at him, he immediately stopped crying and smiled back," she recalled.

Gustavson first tried drugs as kid and had been to drug treatment as a teenager, Sack said. He struggled with anxiety and depression, but mainly used marijuana and different kinds of pills, she said.

The morning of the day he died, Travis had a tooth pulled, but he wasn't prescribed strong painkillers because of his drug history, Sack said. He told his mother he would just stay home and ride out the pain with ibuprofen. He was expecting a visit from his girlfriend that night to watch a movie, she said.

But Gustavson contacted Max Leo Miller, also 21, who provided him a bag containing heroin and fentanyl, according to police.

Some details of what happened are in dispute, but all accounts suggest Gustavson was new to heroin and fentanyl.

Police say Gustavson and Miller exchanged messages on social media. At one point, Gustavson sent a photo of a line of a white substance on a brown table and asked if he was taking the right amount and then wrote "Or bigger?"

According to a police report, Miller responded: "Smaller bro" and "Be careful plz!"

Minnesota, family, drug overdose
Photo provided by Nancy Sack. Sack's grandson, Travis Gustavson, died at age 21 in Mankato after overdosing on what he thought was heroin but was actually laced with fentanyl. Above, from left, Kim Gustavson, Matthew Gustavson, Isaac Gustavson, Travis Gustavson, and Carter Lange. Minnesota's drug overdose rate rose 39 percent over the past year. Katie Tettam/Nancy Sack via AP