In the epicenter of the Commonwealth’s fight against heroin abuse, things are getting worse.
Middlesex county officials said Tuesday that 131 people have died from illegal substances so far this year, which is 32 more people than at this time in 2014. In Lowell, there were two heroin-related fatalities over the weekend and eight nonfatal overdoses on Monday alone, according to police officials.
At its current pace, the county will surpass last year’s total for drug-related deaths before the end of September, with three haunting months to spare.
“The numbers are the numbers. But take for one second and think about those 32 people,” said Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan. “But it’s not just them. It’s their families, it’s their colleagues. Where do we go from here?”
Ryan spoke at Lowell General Hospital to a packed audience of community activists, law enforcement officials, and city political leaders. The forum, called “Communities Join Forces to Prevent Substance Abuse,” was presented by the Greater Lowell Health Alliance.
Speakers outlined the county’s response to the drug epidemic, focusing on the growing number of opioid and heroin-related overdoses. Ryan advocated for a three-pronged approach: increased care for the children of addicts, diversion of offenders into rehabilitative drug courts, and greater resources for young women — an increasing subset of substance abusers in New England.
William Garr, chief executive of the nonprofit advocacy group Lowell House Inc., said Massachusetts could triple the number of recovery beds it currently has available for female opioid abusers and it would still not have enough.
Earlier this year, Governor Charlie Baker commissioned an opioid task force, which provided 65 policy recommendations to address the epidemic. The new state budget allocated $111 million for substance abuse prevention and treatment efforts, with an additional $28 million in the supplemental budget specifically earmarked to fight opioid abuse.
“This is a disease that has no cure, but it does have a solution,” Garr said.
He, along with local police chiefs, believes a synthetic drug called fentanyl has played an unfortunately important role in the statewide spike in heroin-related deaths.
Heroin-related deaths jumped 200 percent from 2013 to 2014 in Middlesex County.
In today’s street market, fentanyl is frequently mixed with heroin without the knowledge of buyers. Police chiefs estimated that fentanyl is 10 to 30 times more potent than heroin.
Fentanyl “is easy to make. It’s combines easily. And addicts love it,” Garr said, calling it the “perfect storm.”
Tewksbury Police Chief Timothy Sheehan said heroin and opioids are tearing apart families in his town. Tewksbury police have seized fentanyl on multiple occasions this year, and have noticed the drug appearing in toxicology results of overdose victims, he said.
Sheehan said police have also seized what they believed to be heroin and discovered that it actually tested as 100 percent fentanyl.
Last year, Tewksbury experienced 62 opioid overdoses, five of which were fatal, Sheehan said. In 2015, there have been seven overdose deaths to date.
“We have better tools. We’re better trained, but the problem is still going,” he said.
Outside of Baker and Ryan’s proposals, other solutions discussed at the forum came from local leaders and community groups, who are attempting to combat the problem on a small scale.
The Greater Lowell Health Alliance said it would provide $50,000 in grants for health and wellness initiatives, and Lowell City Manager Kevin Murphy called for collaboration among municipal institutions.
But most of the practical discussions centered on Narcan, the medication used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Ryan’s office purchased a large supply of the drug last year, she said, which local communities can now buy at a discounted rate. Individuals can also receive training to apply the nasal drug, which slows the effects of an opioid overdose for 30 to 90 minutes, police officials said.
Lowell police officers began carrying Narcan in their vehicles only two weeks ago, and have already used all their supplies, according to Superintendent William Taylor. Beginning this year, all Lowell public schools will have the drug on site and nurses will be trained in Narcan application.
Taylor stressed that the drug is not a cure-all.
“Narcan buys us a small window to get that individual more comprehensive medical treatment,” he said in his forum remarks. “More needs to be done.”
This is due to the widespread availability of heroin and other opioids, plus their increased potency, Taylor said.