The Biden administration scrambles to respond as new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show overdose deaths surged to more than 100,000 fatalities.



Now we turn to another deadly epidemic in this country. For the first time in U.S. history, more than 100,000 people have died from drug overdoses in a 12-month period. These new numbers were released a short time ago by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And the Biden administration is scrambling to respond to this, another crisis that's affecting Americans from coast to coast.

NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann joins us. Brian, the CDC numbers paint a pretty devastating picture. How big is this increase? And do we know why it's happening?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Yeah, A, it's a shattering new number - over 100,000 deaths. That's nearly a third of an increase over the previous year's 12-month period. And one thing that's terrifying here is that this is sort of a lagging indicator. Drug death data sort of lags a few months behind. And so this is information up through April. And so it could be even worse out there now.

And what is driving this, experts say, are really three things. One is the spread of fentanyl, this deadly opioid synthetic that's out on the streets now. Also, methamphetamines have come roaring back - really potent. And then the third thing is the pandemic. It's disrupted health care programs, drug treatment programs. And so a lot of Americans who struggle with addiction - you know, many of them find themselves on their own. Their lives are under enormous stress. And those risk factors have all combined to just cause just an explosion of these opioid fatalities and other drug deaths.

MARTINEZ: Let's talk more about fentanyl and methamphetamines. How are these drugs reaching American streets in such huge quantities right now?

MANN: Yeah, this part is really tough. What's happened is that Mexican drug cartels have really stepped in and taken over fentanyl and methamphetamine production. These are synthetic drugs, unlike others that you have to grow and harvest. You know, these can be made in a lab, in a basement. So they're really cheap, really efficient to make and distribute. And so the drug cartels are just driving more and more of these - some of them look like prescription pain pills. Others are filtering into heroin.

Today Anne Milgram with the Drug Enforcement Administration spoke to reporters. She said this year alone, the DEA has seized enough fentanyl to provide every member of the U.S. population with a lethal dose - every person in the U.S. That's how much fentanyl is coming into the country. And what NPR's reporting has found is that efforts to stop those drugs inside Mexico or at the Mexican border - a lot of those efforts just aren't working. These drugs continue to surge into the U.S.

MARTINEZ: That was really sobering, Brian - what you just said. So what does the Biden administration say needs to be done? I mean, is there a way to bring this under control and keep more people with addiction safe?

MANN: Yeah, this is really interesting, A. Harm reduction is the new strategy. That means with - somebody is, you know, experiencing addiction - how can we keep them alive? How can we keep them safe? And the Biden administration today said they want more states to reduce regulations so that naloxone can be more widely available. This is a drug that can reverse opioid overdoses pretty quickly and easily. So they're pushing this.

But there's an interesting thing here. The Biden administration also declined today to support things like safe consumption sites for people with addiction. That's a strategy being used in Canada and Australia and other places. And also, the Drug Enforcement Administration is drawing criticism right now for pressuring pharmacies that issue buprenorphine. This is another drug that helps people with addiction avoid overdoses. So there is this mixed message coming out of the White House - more harm reduction, but also a lot of these rules that are still in the way.

MARTINEZ: Has the president himself said anything about this surge?

MANN: Yeah. President Biden did issue a statement today. And he said to families who've mourned a loved one and to all the people who are facing addiction and recovery - he said, you're in our hearts. He said, together, we will turn the tide on this epidemic. But I have to say, A, that, you know, the White House has been talking about this for months now. They've continued to roll out new ideas. And what we've seen is that these numbers just keep rising. You know, we see increases month after month as the CDC issues these new numbers.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's addiction correspondent Brian Mann talking about the epidemic of drug deaths in the U.S. Brian, thanks.

MANN: Thanks, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.