Elaine Hill and Andrew Boslett, two University of Rochester economists, estimate in the journal Addiction there were more than 99,000 additional opioid deaths from 1999 to 2016 than had been previously documented, raising the national death toll from the epidemic by about 28 percent, to 453,300. While studying how deaths from overdoses of opioids, such as heroin or OxyContin, were influenced by the decline of coal mining and the rise of shale gas fracking, Hill and Boslett noticed that in more than 20 percent of overdose cases, the type of drug could not be specified, perhaps because an autopsy had not been performed, reports The Atlantic.
In the process of trying to determine the real causes behind unspecified drug overdoses, they discovered that the way a given county investigates deaths could dramatically shift nationwide estimates of the number of people who die of everything including opioids, childbirth, and the new coronavirus. The researchers developed a model to estimate how many unspecified drug overdoses were caused by opioids. That meant factoring in whether the person had other characteristics typically associated with opioid overdose, such as being addicted to opioids or having chronic pain. By applying the model to the “unspecified” overdose deaths, they were able to predict that 72 percent of those were actually from opioids.