LOWELL — The epidemic of heroin and opioids in Middlesex County has reached a level that is unprecedented in its scope and size, but the worst may be yet to come.
By Dec. 4, county officials had already recorded more fatal heroin overdoses than any year on record, though as officials continue to brainstorm new support programs, there is no long-term solution on the horizon.
"These numbers are probably going to get worse before they get better," said Corey Belanger, a Lowell city councilor.
According to statistics provided by Middlesex District Attorney Marian T. Ryan's office Thursday, there have been 131 heroin-induced overdoses this year, up 27 percent from 2014.
Statewide, more than 1,000 died from overdoses of heroin and other opioids in 2014.
In contrast, just two years ago, Middlesex County recorded 33 heroin-related deaths in 2013, 74 percent less than the numbers of this year.
On Thursday, in a conference room at Lowell General Hospital, policymakers and community groups swapped stories of successes and challenges, particularly regarding groups who are more prone to struggle with substance abuse: victims of domestic violence and combat veterans.
Master Sergeant Jason Jernigan of Hanscom Air Force Base said veterans are disproportionately affected by the state's opioid problem.
Jernigan said many military veterans are prescribed opioid painkillers after being deployed, which inadvertently makes them more susceptible to substance abuse. Communities must learn to support veterans, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, in ways other than hospital care, Jernigan said.
"You don't have to experience what people experience to feel for them," he said.
Earlier this year, Governor Charlie Baker pledged to explore new ways of stopping addiction among veterans after three overdosed in a downtown homeless shelter.
"We're just trying to make sure people can get on their feet and live again," Jernigan said. "The pain is very real."
Erin Miller, of Newton-Wellesley Hospital, who coordinates programs that address physical and sexual abuse, said she thinks of addiction as an unfortunate "creative coping" strategy for people who have experienced trauma.
Miller said she often sees the dangerous concoction of substance abuse, sexual abuse, and domestic violence. "An abuser will say, 'If you leave me I'll tell people that you're an addict,'" she said. "And this works to keep people entrapped into abusive relationships."
The stigma surrounding heroin abuse was too much to bear for Christine Connolly of Middlesex Community College.
Connolly, a longtime public health official, said the shame of her daughter's addiction consumed her even after she died of a heroin overdose last December. In her daughter's obituary, Connolly said, she listed the cause of death as the "human condition."
"I didn't want to be faced with it," Connolly said.
On Thursday, Connolly said she had little idea of how addiction worked until it engulfed someone she knew and loved.
"Nobody was born saying they're going to be a drug addict," she said.
The city of Lowell is especially hard hit by the opioid crisis, said police Superintendent William Taylor. It sees about one fatal overdose per week and three nonfatal ones per day.