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The rapid and deadly spread of the COVID-19 virus, along with a worsening drug epidemic, have combined to shorten the expected lifespan of Americans.

Provisional figures from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released this week show that, “In 2020, life expectancy at birth for the total U.S. population was 77.3 years, declining by 1.5 years” from 2019.

That is the biggest one-year decline since 1943 and, at 77.3 years, our life expectancy for 2020 is now equal to that of 2003.

The preliminary figures do not include a state-by-state breakdown, but the most recent estimates show West Virginia ranked at the bottom for life expectancy. CDC statistics released in March estimated the life expectancy for West Virginians born in 2018 at 74.4 years, the lowest in the nation.

2020 should have been a year for improved life expectancy in this country. Mortality rates for cancer, respiratory diseases, heart disease and suicide declined. However, those gains were offset significantly by the pandemic.

COVID-19 was either the leading or underlying cause of more than 385,000 deaths, making it the third-leading cause of death in 2020, after heart disease and cancer.

Drug overdose deaths rose dramatically in 2020. The CDC report attributes 93,331 deaths in 2020 to drug overdoses, up 30 percent from the year before. That is a stunning increase, but West Virginia’s overdose deaths were up even more.

West Virginia had 1,377 overdose deaths in 2020, up from 922 the previous year. That is an increase of 49 percent!

The Wall Street Journal reported, “The pandemic amplified the epidemic of overdoses, bringing on social isolation, trauma and job losses, according to addiction experts and treatment providers.”

But Sen. Mike Woelfel, D-Cabell, who is among the lawyers suing opioid distributors over the drug crisis, believes there is another significant reason — more money available to buy drugs.

“Last year was a very high year for overdoses, probably tied to the stimulus checks that freed up money for people to engage in this,” Woelfel told MetroNews.

The problem here and across the country was exacerbated by the increased availability and use of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more powerful than heroin. It often is mixed with other illicit drugs, leaving the user unaware of the potency.

NBC News reported last month that “Sources with the Drug Enforcement Administration tell NBC News that fentanyl is becoming the drug of choice for cartels because it is highly profitable, extremely potent and easier to smuggle into the U.S. because of its small size.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection continues to see a surge in fentanyl trafficking. “Seizures [of fentanyl] in fiscal year 2021 through June are 78 percent higher than all of fiscal year 2020.”

Queen Elizabeth I supposedly said on her deathbed, “All my possessions for a moment of time.” Time is our life currency, and there is only so much of it for each of us. Given constant improvements in technology and knowledge about healthy lifestyles, we should be living longer.

However, the disturbing data from the CDC show that, overall, we are headed in the opposite direction.

Hoppy Kercheval hosts “Talkline,” on MetroNews.

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