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Mass. report shows opioid-related deaths leveling off since 2022

The report showed that fentanyl was found in 93% of all opioid-related overdose deaths


Meth Mile near Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston.

Reba Saldanha/Boston Herald

By Alvin Buyinza

BOSTON — The number of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts has leveled off from last year, which was the highest number of recorded drug fatalities in the state, showing some progress, but highlighting the grave need for additional resources for Massachusetts to combat the crisis.

Preliminary data shows 1,718 people died of an opioid overdose in Massachusetts during the first nine months of the year, according to a new report by the state Department of Public Health. That’s 32 fewer deaths than in the first nine months of 2022, the agency said in a statement.

Between Oct. 1, 2022, and Sept. 30, 2023, there were 2,323 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths, eight fewer than the same time last year, the agency said in its statement.

Massachusetts had a record 2,359 opioid-related overdose deaths in all of 2022.

The report also found that in 93% of all opioid-related overdose deaths where a toxicology screen was available, fentanyl, a deadly additive, was present.

For Dr. Robert Goldstein, the state Commissioner for the Department of Public Health, the dark figure underscores an uncomfortable truth:

“The drug supply is poisoned,” he said during a virtual news conference on Tuesday. “That even for those who are using other substances, like cocaine, methamphetamine and benzodiazepines, fentanyl is the likely contaminant that is driving overdose deaths.”

New data also highlighted that for every fatal opioid overdose from 2013 to 2021, there were an average of nine, non-fatal overdoses.

One in every 11 people who experienced a non-fatal overdose later died of a fatal one. Although Goldstein said in recent years there’s been a decrease in these kinds of deaths, there isn’t enough data to explain why.

The public health commissioner said he suspects policy changes related to the COVID-19 pandemic and access to medical services as some of the root causes behind the trend.

Data in the report also detailed disparities in opioid deaths between Massachusetts counties. From 2021 to 2022, Worcester and Plymouth saw the sharpest increase in opioid deaths across the state with a nearly 18% and 14% rise respectively.

Goldstein told MassLive that geographic disparities shown in the report’s data are related to a legacy of “historic structural racism and underfunding of the resources that are necessary for Black and Brown communities.”

Researchers didn’t collect any new data on racial disparities among opioid deaths for the department’s end-of-year report. Previous figures from June show that American Indian men had the highest opioid fatality rate of any racial group with 170 per 100,000 men dying in 2022.

To combat the ongoing racial disparities in opioid deaths, the Department of Public Health has funded five prison re-entry programs that are dedicated to helping Black and Latino men recover from substance abuse.

The report also focused on reducing opioid deaths in Massachusetts, namely through overdose prevention centers – facilities where people facing substance abuse issues can use drugs under the supervision of trained clinicians prepared to respond to overdoses.

The Department started assessing the feasibility of overdose prevention centers – or OPCs – in Massachusetts in June. Wednesday’s report is the result of that assessment.

The data cited in the report used OnPoint NYC, a nonprofit with two overdose prevention centers where there’s yet to be an overdose death at either facility, as an example of an effective harm reduction model.

In the two years since OnPoint NYC launched, staff members have served nearly 4,000 patients and intervened in 1,131 non-fatal overdoses, according to the report. Crime also decreased in the surrounding neighborhoods of the two OnPoint NYC facilities as so did call to 311, the city’s non-emergency hotline.

The OPC model could save taxpayer dollars. Boston would save nearly $4 million per year in taxes, including 773 fewer ambulance rides, if all the city’s syringe service programs were converted into overdose prevention centers, a 2020 study from the Institute for Clinical and Economic Review found.

But, despite their proven benefits, overdose prevention centers face several legal barriers on both the federal and statewide levels.

Federal law prohibits organizations or spaces that facilitate illicit drug use. Even though the Biden Administration has embraced harm reduction models, it hasn’t explicitly endorsed the use of overdose prevention centers, according to the report.

And in Massachusetts , people struggling with substance abuse could face criminal drug possession charges for accessing an overdose prevention center, the report’s authors added.

On Beacon Hill legislative action is underway to bring overdose prevention centers to the Commonwealth.

Lawmakers in the state House and Senate have introduced “An Act Relative to Preventing Overdose Deaths and Increasing Access to Treatment” in late October. If approved, the legislation would create a 10-year pilot program for OPCs, with legal protections for clinicians administering support to the facility’s patients.

The proposals were sponsored by Sen. Julian Cyr, D-Cape/Islands, and Reps. Dylan A. Fernandes, D- Barnstable / Dukes / Nantucket and Marjorie C. Decker, D-25th Middlesex, currently are before the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery.

Goldstein said that even as opioid deaths in Massachusetts have plateaued, “it’s hard to find hope in the numbers and the data themselves.”

“We’re leveling off at the highest number of opioid-related overdose deaths that we’ve ever seen in the Commonwealth, and that is a really jarring, sobering number to have to report every six months,” he added. “So until we see a substantial decrease in opioid-related overdose deaths, I don’t think our work is done.”

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