Biden is Latest President to Confront Rising Opioid Deaths With Over 53,000 in 2021

Provisional data gathered by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that more than 53,000 opioid-related deaths have been reported thus far in 2021, a number that demonstrates the persistence and severity of the country's opioid overdose epidemic that federal health officials say started in the 1990s.

The initial data for 2021 shared with Newsweek has not been finalized due to lags in reporting. The data set does not include a death estimate for December and includes just a partial estimate of 138 deaths for the first 20 days of November, a number significantly lower than the 6,576 opioid overdose deaths provisionally reported for January.

Though the data is expected to change, the 53,702 deaths reported thus far still demonstrate an uptick in opioid-related deaths during President Joe Biden's first year in office, a rise his two most recent predecessors also experienced. The number is about 12 percent greater than the 47,600 opioid overdose deaths that the CDC said were reported in 2017 when former President Donald Trump was serving his first year in office. The number of deaths reported so far in 2021 is also more than three times the 15,597 deaths reported to the CDC for 2009 during former President Barack Obama's first year in office alongside then-Vice President Biden.

By the time Obama was serving his final year in office in 2016, the CDC reported 42,249 opioid-related overdose deaths for the year. Three years later, opioid use was attributed to 49,860 overdose deaths reported by the CDC in 2019, the year preceding the first reported COVID-19 infection in the U.S.

Opioid overdose deaths for 2021
More than 53,000 opioid-related overdose deaths have been reported thus far in 2021, according to CDC data. Here, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent weighs a package of fentanyl at the San Ysidro Port of Entry on October 2, 2019 in San Ysidro, California. SANDY HUFFAKER/AFP via Getty Images

According to the CDC, opioid-related overdose deaths began picking up steam in the 1990s as Americans overdosed on prescription pain medications, with just over 4,000 opioid overdose deaths reported in 1999. That number had already tripled by the time Obama was serving his first year in office as the U.S. transitioned into what the CDC refers to as its second wave of the opioid epidemic, driven primarily by heroin. The third and current wave, which the CDC estimates started in 2013, is driven by synthetic opioid use. Synthetic opioid drugs, such as fentanyl, can be manufactured.

Anne Milgram, the head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, said fentanyl is "driving the overdose epidemic" during her recent appearance on CBS News' Face the Nation. Milgram explained that 2 milligrams of fentanyl—an amount she said "could fit on the tip of your pen"—can be deadly. Fentanyl is 50 times stronger than heroin, the drug attributed to much of the second wave of the nation's overdose epidemic.

Overdose deaths increased during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, with the U.S. for the first time reporting more than 100,000 drug overdose deaths during a 12-month period. The CDC noted the total, which was reported between April 2020 and April 2021, represented an increase of more than 28 percent over the total number of overdose deaths reported during the previous 12 months.

About 75 percent of the overdose deaths reported between April 2020 and April 2021 were opioid-related, the CDC said.

Biden called the data a "tragic milestone" in a statement released by the White House following the CDC's report.

"As we continue to make strides to defeat the COVID-19 pandemic, we cannot overlook this epidemic of loss, which has touched families and communities across the country," Biden said.

Earlier this month, Biden issued two executive orders that sought to crack down on illegal drug trafficking, which he said was "causing the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans annually" in addition to those who suffer non-fatal overdoses. The executive orders created the new U.S. Council on Transnational Organized Crime and granted the Treasury Secretary the ability to impose sanctions on individuals and groups identified as being involved with or connected to illegal drug trafficking.