LOS ANGELES - A recent study published in the medical journal The Lancet estimates that more than 1.5 million children around the world lost at least one parent, custodial grandparent, or grandparent who lived with them due to a COVID-19-related death during the first 14 months of the pandemic.
Study authors say orphanhood is an overlooked consequence of the ongoing global pandemic and urge that responses to such a travesty must be a key part of addressing the problems created by the pandemic.
Traumatic experiences like the loss of a parent are also associated with an increase in substance use and mental health disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health which helped fund the study.
Overdose deaths soared to a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government reported last week.
That estimate far eclipses the high of about 72,000 drug overdose deaths reached the previous year and amounts to a 29% increase.
"This is a staggering loss of human life," said Brandon Marshall, a Brown University public health researcher who tracks overdose trends.
While prescription painkillers once drove the nation's overdose epidemic, they were supplanted first by heroin and then by fentanyl, a dangerously powerful opioid, in recent years. Fentanyl was developed to treat intense pain from ailments like cancer but has increasingly been sold illicitly and mixed with other drugs.
"What’s really driving the surge in overdoses is this increasingly poisoned drug supply," said Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse University who researches geographic patterns in overdoses. "Nearly all of this increase is fentanyl contamination in some way. Heroin is contaminated. Cocaine is contaminated. Methamphetamine is contaminated."
Fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of overdose deaths last year, CDC data suggests.
There’s no current evidence that more Americans started using drugs last year, Monnat said. Rather, the increased deaths most likely were people who had already been struggling with addiction. Some have told her research team that suspensions of evictions and extended unemployment benefits left them with more money than usual, leading addicts to say, "When I have money, I stock up on my (drug) supply," Monnat said.
Overdose deaths are just one facet of what was overall the deadliest year in U.S. history. With about 378,000 deaths attributed to COVID-19, the nation saw more than 3.3 million deaths.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reviewed death certificates to come up with the estimate for 2020 drug overdose deaths. The estimate of over 93,000 translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 every hour.
Meanwhile, the novel coronavirus caused an estimated loss of nearly 5.5 million years of life in the U.S. in 2020 alone, according to a report from the Pew Research Center published last month.
Pew researchers say that COVID-19 contributed to more lost years of life for Americans than all accidental deaths combined in a typical year.
Since the onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic, more than 600,000 Americans have lost their lives to the deadly virus and approximately 380,000 Americans died in 2020 alone from COVID-19.
Pew researchers say COVID-19 deaths dwarfed deaths by accidents, stroke, diabetes, liver disease and Alzheimer’s.
Cancer and heart disease are the only causes of death that caused a loss of life greater than COVID-19, according to provisional data from the end of 2019 and some of 2020.
In order to reach the findings, Pew researchers say they compared life years lost to COVID-19 in 2020 with data of other mortality rates in 2019 because detailed analysis of deaths for 2020 is not yet available.
"It’s important to note that the estimated number of life years lost to COVID-19 in 2020 is not based on a full calendar year of data," Pew researchers said.
This story was reported from Los Angeles. Jordan Smith and The Associated Press contributed.