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‘We’re not out of the woods’: Opioid-related deaths declined this year, but just slightly

A homeless addict holds pieces of fentanyl.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

The devastating toll of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts may have started to abate this year, after reaching an all-time high in 2021, according to new data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

The twice-yearly report, released Wednesday, shows mortality dropped by 1.5 percent in the first nine months of 2022 compared to the same period last year.

The state estimated that 1,696 people died of opioid-related overdoses from January through September, about 25 fewer than in the first nine months of 2021.

Addiction specialists and advocates called the trend encouraging, but emphasized that the decline is slight and many people are still dying.

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“The deaths are still on track to nearly match last year’s high. We’re still talking about losing 150 to 200 people every month and that is staggering,” said Dr. Jessica L. Taylor, medical director of Faster Paths, an addiction treatment program at Boston Medical Center.

“We are not out of the woods,” Taylor said.

In 2021, there were 2,301 opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts, a 9.4 percent increase over the previous year and the highest number ever reported. The number of people dying from opioid overdoses has topped 2,000 every year since 2016. Based on the count in the first three quarters of this year, the same is almost sure to happen in 2022.

A key factor has been the widespread contamination of street drugs with illicit fentanyl, a potent synthetic detected in nearly every opioid-related fatal overdose in the first half of this year.

Joanne Peterson, founder and executive director of Learn to Cope, a nonprofit support network for families dealing with addiction, called Wednesday’s data “encouraging” and praised the administration of Governor Charlie Baker for focusing on the issue.

But she added, “We continue to have people losing their loved ones within our groups just all the time, all the time.” Learn to Cope has a trauma specialist who comes to support group meetings to help with all the grieving.

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“Though this is not a moment for celebration, it is one for hope,” said Julie Burns, president and CEO of RIZE Massachusetts, an independent nonprofit foundation working to end the opioid epidemic in the state. In a statement, Burns cautioned that “we cannot forget that each number still represents a life lost too soon and devastation for families and communities across the Commonwealth.”

In a statement, Governor Charlie Baker said he was “proud” of the state’s efforts to combat addiction.

“Since taking office in 2015, our administration made the opioid epidemic an urgent priority, signing two landmark laws to strengthen and expand efforts addressing this public health crisis and working with the Legislature to exponentially increase funding to support prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery services in the Commonwealth,” Baker said.

Peterson, of Learn to Cope, also attributed the decline in deaths to rules put in place during the pandemic that eased restrictions on medications that treat opioid addiction, as well as the wider availability of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone.

The pandemic-era rules permitted patients taking methadone who were deemed stable by their doctors to take home up to a 28-day supply, rather than having to come to a clinic every day. “Going to a clinic every single morning at 7 a.m. when you have a job and kids is a real hardship for some people,” Peterson said.

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Dr. Laura Kehoe, medical director of Massachusetts General Hospital’s substance use disorder Bridge Clinic, also mentioned methadone. “I’d like to think that the lower barriers related to methadone access are actually making an impact,” she said. “That needs to be continued, to be pushed with aggression.”

Just this week, the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration proposed making those pandemic-era changes permanent, including allowing doctors to use telehealth to prescribe another anti-addiction medication, buprenorphine, among other changes.

A bill filed by Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey and others would take it a step further and allow methadone to be dispensed essentially like any other drug – prescribed in a doctor’s office, picked up at a pharmacy. The prescriber would have to specialize in addiction.

People who use drugs also deserve credit for the decline in deaths, the specialists said.

“People who use drugs need to be acknowledged and celebrated for partnering with us in helping keep people alive,” Kehoe said. “They’re taking care of each other” — distributing naloxone, encouraging friends to engage with health care providers, and making sure that people don’t use alone.

Other key findings from the new report:

  • During the first nine months of this year, males made up 72 percent of those who died. Nearly half were among people 25 and 44 years old, and 42 percent between 45 and 64 years old.
  • Between 2020 and 2021, the death rate per 100,000 decreased slightly for all Black non-Hispanic residents and remained stable or slightly increased for all other race/ethnic groups.
  • Although females remain a minority of those who died, their death rate is increasing, up from 16.4 per 100,000 in 2020 to 17.2 per 100,000 in 2021.
  • Comparing deaths by municipality from 2020 to 2021, Framingham and Weymouth experienced a notable decrease, while deaths increased significantly in Attleboro, Burlington, Lawrence, and Lowell.
  • After peaking in September 2015, the percentage of Emergency Medical Services incidents considered opioid-related decreased slightly – two-tenths of one percent – each quarter through September 2022.

Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her @felicejfreyer.