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Cornyn right that annual drug overdose deaths top 100,000
If Your Time is short
- Cornyn cited a November CDC press release that shared there were more than 100,000 deaths due to drug overdose nationally from April 2020 to April 2021.
- There were more than 100,000 deaths due to drug overdose from September 2020 to September 2021, according to an email from CDC media relations about the most recent data release.
- Opioid use is driving this high number of drug overdose deaths.
Days after the U.S. reached 900,000 total COVID-19 deaths, U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, highlighted another morbid statistic.
He tweeted on Feb. 14, "We recently found out our nation hit a grim milestone: 100,000 Americans died of an overdose in a single year."
He also linked this statistic to President Joe Biden's border policy and wrote, "Pres. Biden’s open borders policies are letting drugs like Fentanyl pour into our communities. This cannot go on - we must secure the border."
Is it true that 100,000 Americans died of overdose "in a single year"? PolitiFact Texas took a look.
Cornyn's office pointed to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Nov. 17 news release and a Feb. 13 article by The New York Times citing that November release.
The National Center for Health Statistics estimated there were more than 100,300 drug overdose deaths nationally in a 12-month period ending April 2021. That matches what Cornyn said. Compared to the same period the year prior, drug overdose deaths had increased 28.5%.
Data released Feb. 16 indicate an estimated 104,288 Americans died from drug overdoses from September 2020 to September 2021, according to CDC media relations.
Marcia Ory, Texas A&M University School of Public Health professor and co-chair of Texas A&M's Opioid Task Force, believes that number may be an undercount. Ory said she sees that to be the case in Texas' rural counties.
"Texas has very few medical examiners in all of our 254 counties, so we already know that it's often a justice of the peace or someone who's not medically trained," Ory said. "Because of that the symptoms of an overdose death might be interpreted as cardiac failure, respiratory problems."
According to 2019 posts by the Texas Medical Association, only 15 of Texas' 254 counties have populations large enough to have a medical examiner's office.
Cornyn's tweet included a video of his remarks in the Feb. 14 Senate session, where he described how opioid overdose deaths are driving drug overdose deaths and how the drug overdose death rate changed from 2018 to 2020.
Scott Walters— professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth and a leader in a National Institutes of Health-backed initiative to stem the opioid crisis — said Cornyn's characterization of overdose deaths decreasing in 2018, increasing in 2019, and skyrocketing in 2020 was right.
"Cornyn's right that in 2018 we had seen a slow decrease, slow slide, of drug overdose deaths. That's absolutely true. But coinciding with the start of the pandemic, we saw a sharp increase in the number of overdose deaths," Walters said.
When it comes to drug overdose deaths, the driver of the increase is opioid use. The CDC press release indicated deaths from opioids increased by 35% from the one-year period ending in April 2020 to the one ending in April 2021.
Cornyn specifically emphasized fentanyl use. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that, even in small amounts, can be lethal. The Department of Justice describes fentanyl "practically and effectively 50 and 100 times more potent than heroin or prescription opioids" on its public awareness webpage on opioids.
Cornyn wrote in his tweet, "Pres. Biden’s open borders policies are letting drugs like Fentanyl pour into our communities. This cannot go on - we must secure the border." Cornyn said he believed Customs and Border Protection agents' focus on an influx of migrants has detracted from drug interdiction efforts.
It's important to note, however, that the one-year period cited by Cornyn's office started during Donald Trump's presidency and ended roughly three months after Biden took office.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection in South Texas saw a 1,066% increase in fentanyl seized in fiscal year 2021, according to a January press release from the agency. Mexico and China were the primary source for fentanyl trafficked into the U.S. in 2019, according to a 2020 report by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
"Starting with the beginning of the pandemic and the lockdown, what happened was that the normal — the so-called normal — supply routes for heroin were all pinched. It was just plain more difficult to get heroin anymore," Walters said.
So people started to shift during the pandemic, Walters said.
"You saw a shift from heroin and prescription pill-based products to more synthetic products. Synthetic opioids like fentanyl," Walters said. "That's responsible for the increase."
Jane Maxwell, a University of Texas professor who monitors drug use patterns in Texas, said there is not a lot of data available on users, despite fentanyl's link to many recent drug overdose deaths.
While Cornyn pointed to Biden's border policy as part of the problem, Walters said he isn't sure "open borders" is the problem. Walters noted people have been moving substances across the border for years, and fentanyl is smaller and easier to conceal.
Walters said he believes drug awareness campaigns need to be rethought. Well-established public health education tactics, like for public education on the dangers of smoking, assume people have a long time to use drugs before something terrible happens. That long period of time allows more opportunities to cut down or quit.
"With fentanyl, lethal doses are much smaller. It's a lot more like a poison in circulation. And we ought to be thinking more about a poison control solution rather than a stereotypical drug use campaign," Walters said.
Cornyn tweeted on Feb. 14, "We recently found out our nation hit a grim milestone: 100,000 Americans died of an overdose in a single year."
While Cornyn did not specify which year in the tweet, the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention support this.
We rate this as True.
Tweet by U.S. Sen. John Cornyn from Texas, Feb. 14, 2022
C-Span Senate Session: Feb. 14, 2022
Email from Murphy McCollough, press secretary for Sen. John Cornyn, Feb. 15, 2022 and Feb. 16, 2022
Email from Jane C. Maxwell, University of Texas at Austin research professor at the Steve Hicks School of Social Work, Feb. 16, 2022
Phone interview with Marcia Ory, public health professor at Texas A&M University and chair of Texas A&M's Opioid Task Force, Feb. 17, 2022
Phone Interview with Scott Walters, regents professor at University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, School of Public Health, Feb. 16, 2022
Email from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention media relations, Feb. 17, 2022
Sean Price at the Texas Medical Association, "What's Killing Texans? Fixing Texas' System for Tracking Deaths," June 2019.
Email from Scott Walters, regents professor at University of North Texas Health Science Center at Fort Worth, School of Public Health, Feb. 16, 2022
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Health Statistics, "Drug Overdose Deaths in the U.S. Top 100,000 Annually," Nov. 17, 2021
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: National Center for Health Statistics, "Vital Statistics Rapid Release: Provisional Drug Overdose Death Counts."
German Lopez, "A Rising Death Toll," The New York Times, Feb. 13, 2022
Roni Caryn Rabin, "Overdose Deaths Reached Record High as the Pandemic Spread," Nov. 17, 2021
U.S. Customs and Border Protection, "CBP Officers at South Texas Ports of Entry Post Significant Increases in Fentanyl, Cocaine Seized in FY 2021," Jan. 5, 2022
The United States Department of Justice, "Opioid Facts," updated Feb. 10, 2022
Office of the Attorney General of Texas, "Paxton Secures $1.167 Billion for Texas in Global Opioid Agreement," Feb. 16, 2022
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, "Fentanyl Flow to the United States," January 2020
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Cornyn right that annual drug overdose deaths top 100,000
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