WORCESTER — At least nine people have died here from suspected drug overdoses during the past six days, prompting authorities Wednesday to issue urgent health warnings as the state’s second-largest city became the latest front in the battle against heroin.
“There’s something going on with the heroin,” Police Chief Gary Gemme said. “It’s either mixed with something that’s very bad, very deadly, or the purity is so high that it’s causing these deaths.”
Gemme said that already this month, officers have responded to 33 overdose calls, at least nine of them fatal. Officials compared that tally to the number of drug-related deaths in all of 2011 — the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available — when 22 people died in Worcester.
“It certainly is a drastic and alarming spike in deaths,” City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. said.
Heroin has extended its reach into communities across Massachusetts in the past year, killing hundreds of people from the South Coast to the Vermont border. Illustrating the vagaries of narcotics and addiction, Taunton, which had reported a rash of drug-related deaths earlier this year, has experienced a sharp drop in overdoses in recent weeks.
But in Worcester, a city of 182,000, heroin is proving as deadly as ever.
“We’re in the midst of a public health emergency,” said Derek Brindisi, Worcester’s public health director.
Even as authorities await tests confirming heroin as the culprit in the latest deaths, the police and health departments are distributing fliers to community health and addiction service centers warning that “preliminary testing indicates that contaminated heroin may be available on the streets.” The fliers also list resources for patients and families struggling with addiction.
Deputy Police Chief Steven M. Sargent said officers are warning people that heroin might be lethally spiked or extremely pure.
“We’re just letting them know that there’s something going on out there,” he said.
Gemme, the chief, said heroin is often cut with the potent painkiller fentanyl, or even rat poison and horse tranquilizers. In Worcester, he said, heroin averages about $8 a bag, and police have seen batches of varying purity, from 17 to 67 percent.
Reports of overdoses have become almost routine. Police said they have responded to about 300 overdoses, both fatal and not, so far this year. They project there will be 503 overdoses by the end of 2014, up from 447 last year.
Worcester police officers recently finished training on the use of Narcan, a drug that can reverse an overdose almost immediately and that can be used by authorities or the family members of substance abusers.
Worcester police are placing an order for $13,000 worth of Narcan, Gemme said, and hope to have the spray medication in cruisers in about two weeks.
Joseph D. Early, the Worcester County district attorney, said in an interview that his office is working with local police to investigate the deaths.
And prosecutors are looking at ways to increase penalties for dealers, Early said.
“We’re looking at elevating all of these charges,” he said.
Early said he has never seen such a serious drug problem in eight years as district attorney.
“Every time your phone goes off, every time you’ve got a message, you’re wondering, ‘Is this another overdose death?’ ” he said.
Monday afternoon, authorities received a call from a maintenance worker in an apartment building on Outlook Drive. They walked into a ground-floor unit and found three men dead from apparent overdoses.
By Wednesday afternoon, flower petals and a trio of vases decorated the concrete deck and a small strip of grass behind the apartment unit where the men died.
Danielle Poirier, 32, said two of the men, whom she knew only as Frankie and Rick, were her neighbors.
“They were good people,” she said.
Heroin addiction is intensifying in the city, she said, but it is discouraging to see some people disparage addicts who suffer from an insidious disease.
“It’s not fair,” Poirier said. “It’s not right.”
On Beacon Hill on Wednesday, Governor Deval Patrick signed into law a measure requiring insurers to cover inpatient addiction treatment, making it easier for patients to get detoxification services.
At the signing ceremony, the governor, who earlier this year created a $20 million plan for expanded insurance and treatment opportunities, said a cooperative approach is necessary to combat the “extraordinary scourge” of opioids in the Commonwealth.
“Families can’t do it on their own,” Patrick said.
“Clinics and hospitals can’t do it on their own. Government can’t do it on its own. But all of us, working together, can.”
The governor’s aspirations for collaboration were shared at a summit convened by Senator Edward J. Markey on Wednesday to discuss the problem of heroin in Massachusetts and across the country.
Federal, state, and local leaders met at Boston Medical Center in search of a multifaceted approach to addiction, which they said was both a health and law-enforcement issue.
“It just cannot continue because there’s no end in sight for how many people can die per year from this,” Markey said.
Michael Botticelli, acting director of National Drug Control Policy in the Obama administration, said “there’s no more pressing issue” for federal drug officials than heroin abuse.
“We know there’s no silver bullet here, and we know it requires a comprehensive response,” said Botticelli, who formerly led the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services in Massachusetts’ health department.
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