US annual drug overdose deaths have surged to more than 100,000 for the first time, a "crisis" driven mainly by fentanyl, officials said Wednesday.
Experts say people with substance use disorders have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus pandemic, while law enforcement agencies are worried by the rise in fake prescription pills sold online that are laced with illicit opioids.
"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," President Joe Biden said in a statement.
"It's time to face the fact that this crisis seems to be getting worse. We need all hands on deck," health secretary Xavier Becerra said in a call with reporters.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, the country saw 100,306 fatal overdoses, an increase of 28.5 percent compared to the same period the previous year -- equal to one death every five minutes.
Overall, opioids accounted for 75,673 of the 100,306 fatalities, with the vast majority from synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl.
Deaths from psychostimulants like methamphetamine, as well as from natural and semi-synthetic opioids, such as prescription pain medication, and cocaine were also up.
Covid-19 killed around 508,000 people in the same time frame, according to Our World in Data.
"Many of the challenges left behind by the pandemic will actually make people more vulnerable to mental illness and substance use disorders," Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said in the briefing.
At the same time, the US Drug Enforcement Administration has warned Americans about prescription pills available online that are made to look like real Oxycontin, Vicodin, Xanax or Adderall, but contain lethal doses of fentanyl and methamphetamine.
The DEA has seized more than 14 million pills this year, with the vast majority produced in Mexico from chemicals supplied by China.
The fake pills are widely available on social media and e-commerce platforms.
In 2019, the latest year for which national data was available, heart disease was the leading cause of death, with some 660,000 fatalities, followed by cancer, with around 600,000 deaths, and unintentional injuries, at 175,000.
Biden's administration meanwhile announced the release of a "model law" it wants states to adopt that would widen access to naloxone, a life-saving medicine that reverses overdoses.
"I believe that no one should die of an overdose simply because they didn't have access to naloxone," said Rahul Gupta, director of national drug control policy.
"Sadly, today that is happening across the country."
The act includes provisions that would grant immunity to individuals who administer naloxone, require physicians to co-prescribe it when prescribing opioids, ensure health insurance covers the medicine, and seek to educate more people about the benefits.
In his statement, Biden touted a stimulus package that passed in March and delivered $4 billion to expand services for substance abuse and mental health.