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The Biden team is scrambling to slow a crushing wave of drug overdose deaths

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Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said the overdose epidemic has grown so severe, new measures are needed to keep people with addiction alive. He is seen here on Capitol Hill in September.
Greg Nash/Pool, Getty Images

Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra said the overdose epidemic has grown so severe, new measures are needed to keep people with addiction alive. He is seen here on Capitol Hill in September.

The Biden administration is rolling out a new coordinated strategy it hopes will slow the menacing rise in drug overdose deaths.

According to the latest preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, roughly 100,000 people in the U.S. died from overdoses over a 12-month period, a massive surge from a year earlier.

Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said the overdose epidemic has grown so severe, new measures are needed to keep people with addiction alive.

"We are literally trying to give [drug] users a lifeline," Becerra told NPR. "We're willing to go to places where our opinions and our tendencies have not allowed us to go."

The spread of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl accounts for much of the carnage, along with a resurgence of popularity of methamphetamines.

New federal research also shows more people in the U.S. are using drugs during the pandemic, putting them at high risk of overdose and death.

More than 9 million Americans misused pain pills last year, despite the fact that many opioid medications sold on the street are counterfeit and come laced with fentanyl.

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The HHS plan includes needle exchanges, fentanyl test strips and a focus on harm reduction

A major focus of the Biden administration's plan is on expanding federal support and coordination of harm reduction strategies for people actively using dangerous drugs.

"If you can't prevent someone from becoming a user, then at least prevent them from harming themselves to the point of death," Becerra said.

In the past, these efforts have often been organized by grassroots groups at a local level.

According to Becerra, the new national effort will include wider distribution of fentanyl test strips, which help users avoid street drugs contaminated with the deadly synthetic opioid.

The plan also embraces expansion of needle exchange programs, which have been shown to reduce the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis among people with addiction.

In many parts of the U.S. these harm reduction strategies are still illegal or face growing opposition from law enforcement groups and local elected officials.

Becerra said important strategies for keeping active drug users alive have been "left on the table that people have been too afraid to try" because of political opposition.

Part of the Biden administration's new approach will be to help overcome that resistance.

"It's going to be tough. We need to get [drug user] buy-in. We need to get state and local partner buy-in," Becerra said.

Advocates praise the plan, but some worry it doesn't go far enough

The plan, which comes with an $11.2 billion request for funding from Congress, also includes:

  • Greater access to drug treatment
  • A program to reduce racial and regional inequities in how people with addiction are treated
  • An effort to reduce stigma for Americans suffering addiction

Drug policy experts and advocacy groups praised the new overdose response initiative as an important step, but some said it doesn't go far enough.

"Their logic is the right logic," said Keith Humphreys, an addiction researcher at Stanford University.

"It's what you do when you have an epidemic of addiction. You try to keep people from becoming addicted, you try to keep alive the people you can't treat, and you try to get them into recovery."

Humphreys said the impact of the plan would depend in large part on Congress's willingness to provide adequate funding. "There have to be dollars behind it," he said.

Kassandra Frederique, head of the Drug Policy Alliance, also described the plan as "encouraging," but she said the Biden administration needs to decriminalize drug use so that more people can get healthcare without fear of punishment.

Frederique also said the overdose crisis has become so severe, this plan's harm reduction steps may be too little, too late. "When we've hit over 100,000 people dying of overdoses...the floor has changed," she said.

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