Fact check: Comparing drug overdoses to COVID-19 deaths

Posted July 21, 2020 5:30 p.m. EDT
Updated July 21, 2020 6:44 p.m. EDT

A federal prosecutor and a state lawmaker from western New York sparred recently over the scale of coronavirus deaths in their state.

In a May 30 op-ed in the Buffalo News, James P. Kennedy Jr., the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York, urged a quicker reopening of the economy, in part because he said that a failure to do so would cause psychological harm and spur deaths from drug abuse.

In the op-ed, Kennedy said he has seen a "roughly three-fold increase in the number of drug overdose deaths" during the pandemic. As the country is struggling economically, he wrote, "such measures come at a cost that goes well beyond the adverse impact they have had on our economy."

This argument drew a response from Monica P. Wallace, a Democratic assemblywoman for the 143rd District of New York. She told the Buffalo News that Kennedy glossed over the reality that significantly more people died due to the coronavirus in two months than died of overdoses all of last year.

The Buffalo News paraphrased Wallace’s remark this way: "Wallace said Kennedy failed to mention that significantly more people died of Covid-19 in two months than died of overdoses all of last year or the year before."

When we reached her, Wallace confirmed that the paraphrase was accurate.

We found that her assertion is correct.

How many COVID-19 related deaths were there in two months?

For the number of coronavirus deaths, Wallace referred us to a count by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found from the beginning of April until the end of May, approximately 96,647 people died in the United States.

The total number of deaths through mid-June was 103,339, according to the CDC. However, this may be an underestimate due to difficulties in collecting the full data.

How many people have died of drug overdoses last year and the previous year?

For the number of overdoses, Wallace referred us to CDC data.

The CDC’s most recent full-year data is for 2018. That year, there were 67,367 drug overdose deaths. In 2017, there were 70,237 overdose deaths.

So the national figures show that the two-month toll of coronavirus deaths exceeded the year-long number of drug overdose deaths in both 2017 and 2018.

The same was true for New York state. There were 21,964 coronavirus deaths in New York state between the start of April and the end of May, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That compares to 3,697 drug overdose deaths for all of 2018 in New York state and 3,921 in 2017.

PolitiFact ruling

PolitiFact: True

Wallace said that significantly more people died of Covid-19 in two months than died of overdoses all of last year or the year before.

She’s correct. Nationally, more than 96,000 Americans died of the coronavirus in April and May 2020, compared to a bit more than 70,000 Americans who died of drug overdoses in the higher of the two most recent years, 2017.

We rate the statement True.

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