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Heroin overdose deaths surge across the state

Police and drug counselors struggle to explain reasons for recent activity

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff/Boston Globe

Heroin and other opiate overdoses are spiking across Massachusetts, with an alarming 58 suspected deaths so far this month, the same number reported for all of November, 16 of them in one weekend, State Police said.

The deaths are being reported in urban, rural, and suburban parts of the state, baffling officials who see no clear explanation for the sudden uptick. State police said they are cataloging evidence to try to determine any “common patterns or similarities,” including the sources or composition of drugs suspected in the deaths.

“These are real lives, people who are dying,” said Colonel Tim Alben, superintendent of the State Police. “We shouldn’t be dismissive because they are illegal drug users. Deaths like these sometimes fly under the radar. If there’s one suspected Ebola case, everyone is up in arms about it, and here we have a legitimate public health” issue.

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The figures include deaths that are suspected of being caused by opiates, mainly heroin, because of evidence such as needles or other parphernalia at the scene. Overdose deaths are not officially recorded until toxicology tests confirm a cause of death.

Tuesday morning, State Police said they stopped a car in Greenfield and, after an investigation, discovered that the driver, a 39-year-old man from New Bedford, possessed what is believed to be 80 bags of heroin.

Opioid overdoses have been steadily climbing in Massachusetts since 2010, from 526 that year to 863 in 2013, according to the state Department of Public Health.

Figures for 2014 are not yet available.

In March, Governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency to combat the growing abuse of opiates, directing first responders across the state to carry Narcan, a drug that can counteract the effects of opiate overdoses, and pledging $20 million to increase treatment and recovery services.

Even with so much public attention on the issue, local law enforcement and drug abuse counselors said they have been caught off guard by the activity in recent weeks. State Police said some 43 cities and towns across the state had suspected overdoses. Boston, Worcester, and Springfield were not included in the State Police figures.

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On Cape Cod, Yarmouth Police Chief Steve Xiarhos said the department had responded to 10 apparent heroin overdoses in a three-week period starting Nov. 23.

In the same period last year, it responded to one. All but two of the recent victims were revived after being administered Narcan.

Xiarhos said he has never seen such a sudden and extreme jump in overdoses. “It’s a clear-cut epidemic in the state, even in the Cape,” he said.

In Haverhill, where heroin is blamed for 22 deaths this year, residents were shocked this month by the apparent overdoses of a 36-year-old mother and 39-year-old father who were found dead by their two young children.

In New Hampshire, heroin overdose deaths have similarly spiraled. Through the first nine months of this year, the state recorded 65 heroin overdose deaths, compared with 70 all of last year, according to the Associated Press.

Police in Manchester, N.H., said the city had six suspected heroin overdose deaths from Nov. 26 to Dec. 7, according to New Hampshire Public Radio.

Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learn to Cope, a support network for families and loved ones of addicts, said members of her group have been hard hit on the Cape, as well as on the North Shore.

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In the past week, six members lost loved ones to what are believed to be heroin overdoses, she said.

Peterson plans to attend a funeral for one of them on Wednesday.

She said a cluster of overdoses has happened before, often owing to a potent additive in the heroin. But the rise is steeper and feels more dangerous than in years past.

“This year is one of the worst I’ve seen,” she said. “We can’t keep up with the epidemic.”

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at sarah.schweitzer
@globe.com
. Follow her on Twitter @SarahSchweitzer. Trisha Thadani can be reached at trisha.thadani@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @TrishaThadani.