More than 100,000 people in the U.S. died of a drug overdose during the first year of the pandemic, a nearly 29% increase from the same time period in 2019, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced Wednesday. The vast majority of those deaths were due to opioids, particularly synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
"An American dying every five minutes -- that's game-changing," Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said at a media briefing.
The new data has prompted concern among officials about the worsening overdose epidemic.
In response to the findings, the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services and other government health officials outlined new initiatives aimed at combating the overdose epidemic, including expanding access to naloxone -- a drug used to reverse opioid overdoses, allowing federal dollars to be used to purchase fentanyl test strips to detect the presence of fentanyl in any drug batch and increasing funding toward addiction prevention efforts.
The CDC previously warned that the rate of overdose deaths accelerated during the pandemic -- driven largely by synthetic opioids like fentanyl. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institutes of Health.
It can also be manufactured to look like real prescription pills and be illegally imported and sold throughout the U.S., contributing to this crisis.
"We have already seized 12,000 pounds of fentanyl," said Anne Milgram, administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration. "This year alone, the DEA has seized enough fentanyl to provide every member of the United States population with a lethal dose."
The increased number of deaths from overdoses is also concerning for public health experts.
"This alarming data indicates a crisis in the mental health community caused by both the ongoing pandemic and fentanyl's explosion on the illegal drug scene," said Dr. Akhil Anand, a psychiatrist with Cleveland Clinic. "This new report should be another continued wake-up call to the overdose deaths happening every day, and people often don't even know what they are taking. This is a public health crisis, and it is crucial we continue to get people into treatment quickly."
The CDC's National Center for Health Statistics launched a new interactive dashboard with an overview of the new data, featuring a U.S. map showing the increase in deaths.
Lauren Joseph, a student at Stanford Medical School, is a contributor to the ABC News Medical Unit. Alexis E. Carrington, M.D., is an ABC News Medical Unit associate producer and a rising dermatology resident at The George Washington University.