Drug deaths spiked dramatically during a period that includes the first six months of the pandemic, up roughly 27% compared with the previous year, the acting head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy said Thursday.
"We lost 88,000 people in the 12-month period ending in August 2020," Regina LaBelle told reporters during a morning briefing. "Illicitly manufactured fentanyl and synthetic opioids are the primary drivers of this increase."
That number, based on provisional data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is sharply higher than the figure reported by the CDC as recently as last December.
The data suggests the dangerous upward trend of drug overdose fatalities continues. According to LaBelle, Americans age 35 to 44 appear most at risk.
The White House also unveiled a seven-part plan designed to bend the curve downward, which officials said would be implemented over the next year.
"Our first priority is expanding access to quality treatment and recovery support services," LaBelle said.
One piece of that agenda will involve removing bureaucratic hurdles that prevent many doctors from prescribing buprenorphine. The drug is proven to help patients with opioid use disorder avoid relapses.
It's unclear when the change will be made, however.
"I don't have a specific timeline," LaBelle said. "We know it's urgent."
The Biden administration drew criticism in January when it reversed a Trump administration order making buprenorphine more widely available on an emergency basis.
The White House plan drew praise from Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., who represents one of the states hit hardest by the opioid epidemic.
"I have long pushed to expand access to medication-assisted treatment," Hassan said in a statement. "I look forward to working with the White House to get this done."
In the briefing Thursday, LaBelle outlined a vision for addiction policy that would shift the government's response away from law enforcement and drug arrests toward health care and treatment.
The plan notes that President Biden has called for an end to incarceration for individuals struggling with substance use disorder.
The White House has also drawn criticism, however, for moving slowly to appoint key members of its drug policy team. The administration still hasn't named an individual to permanently lead the Drug Enforcement Administration or the ONDCP.
LaBelle said much of the Biden team's drug plan can be implemented immediately while appointments are still being made and confirmed. But the acting director also acknowledged delays in policymaking because of key positions that remain unfilled.
She pointed to uncertainty over how the Justice Department will handle supervised drug use sites operated by nonprofit groups, designed to reduce overdose deaths and the spread of disease.
In 2019, the Trump administration sued to block such a program in Philadelphia. LaBelle said it remains unclear how the Biden administration's DOJ will view "safe" drug-use sites.
"Unfortunately...for today's news, a lot of those decisions have to be held off until we have people in place at the Department of Justice and...they're not in place yet," LaBelle said.