A new study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found a surge in fatal drug overdoses across the country, some experts say Black Americans have suffered the most.
“It wasn’t until we started looking at the level of race and ethnicity that we realized Black and brown communities are being disproportionately affected,” Dr. Utsha Khatri, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, told NPR.
Though the CDC doesn’t gather data on overdose deaths by race, Khatri’s team reviewed data collected in Philadelphia over the course of the pandemic. They found overdose deaths among the city’s Black residents increased more than 50%, while overdose deaths in white residents remained the same or even decreased in some months.
Nationally, the CDC saw a nearly 20% surge in drug overdose deaths across the board.
“COVID really just acted as salt in the wounds of health and social inequities, perpetuated by structural racism both in Philadelphia and across the country,” Khatri said. Khatri’s peer-reviewed findings were published in January of this year in the Journal of the American Medical Association, sounding the alarm for other public health researchers.
In California, a team of researchers is taking a look at drug overdose death data, and finding similar racial disparities. “The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply exacerbated the inequities of the overdose crisis, which is really, really scary,” Dr. Ayana Jordan, a Yale University researcher on the California team, told the news outlet. So far, early findings are “really concerning” as a significant rise in Black overdose deaths has been shown in preliminary data.
Experts Point To Several Causes
Part of what is leading to the increase in deaths, researchers believe, is the spread of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid found as a contaminant within drugs sold illegally in the US.
Advocates and historians say the legacy of America’s War on Drugs and its criminal policies left communities of color and those with low incomes without resources.
“We’re still seeing punitive measures, harsh measures happening in those minority communities, and there’s a lack of rehabilitative facilities,” Jasmine Drake, a former researcher for the Drug Enforcement Administration, said. Advocates say many Black communities are considered “treatment deserts” due to a lack of affordable, quality substance abuse programs.
Dr. Stephan Taylor co-authored a policy statement released by the American Society of Addiction Medicine, calling out the “systemic racism in drug policy and addiction medicine.”
Black people, and people of color who struggle with drug abuse are often seen as “the prototype of a criminal,” Taylor said. “Arrests and incarceration, that’s the way it was dealt with,” Taylor added. “That’s what’s been in place for a long time, and I don’t see that we’ve made progress in that.”
Bias in treatment is also a barrier experts say is causing Black people in need of help to not receive it.
“...I’ll get referrals from clinics where people have been dismissed [from treatment] because they didn’t make it to their appointment on time,” Jordan said. “I say, well did you think about whether the person was coming from work? Or the bus was running late? All of these things have to be considered, especially if there are child care issues.”
Dr. Nzinga Harrison manages Eleanor Health, a Black-owned drug rehab network that spans the nation to address the bias people of color face from white providers.
“You can hear it in the tone. You can see it when you’re waiting in line and a person who’s not Black comes in and they address that person before they address you,” Harrison described.
“These experiences add up time and time and time and time to say this system does not have my best interests at heart,” Harrison added.
To reduce the overdoses, experts say system overhauls are required.
Changing statistics like Black people being 35 times less likely to be prescribed medications to prevent relapses and fatal overdoses are necessary.
A study released by the JAMA Network found that over the next two years, overdose deaths in urban communities could be reduced by 40% if treatments using medications and access to long-term treatment is increased.
Photo Credit: Getty Images