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Officials take notice of rise in heroin overdoses

Senator Edward J. Markey (left) and former NBA player Chris Herren (second from left) listened as Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, spoke about recent heroin overdoses at a press conference in Taunton.

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

Senator Edward J. Markey (left) and former NBA player Chris Herren (second from left) listened as Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, spoke about recent heroin overdoses at a press conference in Taunton.

TAUNTON — Following a recent surge of sometimes fatal heroin overdoses in this city and across the region, a top White House official and state and local leaders said today that they were focused on the issue, as they worked to better understand what they called an “epidemic.”

US Senator Edward J. Markey called the uptick in overdoses “a scourge like we have never seen before.”

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“Communities throughout Massachusetts — communities like Taunton — suffer the direct pain of this epidemic,” he said at a news conference at Taunton’s central fire station.

A number of the officials, who included the director of White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, Gil Kerlikowske, mayors, and state lawmakers, said they would work to further expand access to naloxone, a drug known widely by the trademark name Narcan, which is used to reverse opiate overdoses.

They said deaths could be reduced by broadening its availability to more first responders and others likely to be around a person who overdoses.

“If we can get Narcan into the hands of first responders and into the hands of families, we have a real chance to do something to make sure this epidemic of deaths ... is reduced and reduced dramatically,” Markey said.

He added that he planned to introduce federal legislation that would provide immunity from civil liability to people who administer naloxone to those who have overdosed on opiates.

Chris Herren, a former professional basketball player who struggled with addiction and now works to help people get to recovery, spoke about naloxone.

“Narcan was administered to me and I was brought back to life,” he said.

“What needs to be in place is beds for addicts to land on after Narcan has been administered,” Herren added.

Officials also said they would push for funding to increase the availability of addiction treatment.

“We need to respond and respond quickly,” said state Senator Marc R. Pacheco, a Taunton Democrat. He said the Legislature, in concert with the Patrick administration, was working to fund “increase treatment opportunities for citizens in the Commonwealth.”

Much of the news conference was devoted to discussing the scope of the problem.

“We’re dealing not only with the problem of prescription drugs, opiates, which are the synthetic painkillers, but also, of course, an influx and an increase of heroin,” Kerlikowske said.

While the officials offered no hard answers on reasons behind the apparent increase in overdoses in Massachusetts, they hypothesized that something in the heroin itself had changed.

“This heroin is not only inexpensive, but increasingly being laced with Fentanyl,” Markey said, referring to the powerful synthetic narcotic. “That combination is toxic, and it is across the streets of Massachusetts right now.”

After the press conference, Taunton Police Chief Edward Walsh said that based on what he has seen, “a lot of the heroin that is resulting in overdoses is tainted.”

“A lot of the people who are OD’ing are experienced heroin users. They’re used to it. They know what they’re doing. They know the amounts they’re used to using. And all of a sudden, you’re seeing them OD. Which leads us to believe there is something wrong with the heroin,” he explained.

At the press conference, Cheryl Bartlett, commissioner of the state Department of Public Health, said there had been 30 heroin overdose deaths in Massachusetts since the beginning of the year. A DPH spokeswoman later clarified that was an anecdotal number given to Bartlett by a someone who works in the addiction prevention field. The spokeswoman added the number was not an official departmental count, as the department did not yet have updated statistics for 2014.

But in Taunton alone, there have been about 70 calls for opiate overdoses and seven apparently overdose-related deaths this year, according to Jeffrey Begin, area commander for American Medical Response, which provides ambulance service in the city.

He added that the count did not include the reports of overdoses that had come in today by the time of the news conference was over early this afternoon.

“It’s definitely an increase,” he said. “This, by far, surpasses any of the years we’ve seen with heroin use.”

Before the event, officials huddled behind closed doors at the fire station for a round table discussion about strategies to reduce the number of overdoses.

In the middle of the meeting, a call came in.

The call was “for a possible drug overdose on Oak Street in Taunton, which is right down the street from our temporary city hall,” said Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye, who was in the meeting. “It’s a problem that really hits home.”

Joshua Miller can be reached at joshua.miller@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jm_bos.
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