More than half the people who died last year from opioid overdoses had the powerful drug fentanyl in their blood, according to data released Monday by the state Department of Public Health.
The department’s quarterly report on overdoses included information about fentanyl for the first time, confirming reports from law enforcement that the synthetic opioid — more powerful than morphine or heroin — may be playing a major role in the overdose epidemic. Dealers are believed to be lacing heroin with fentanyl, making it even more deadly.
“The first-time inclusion of data on fentanyl allows us to have a more honest and transparent analysis of the rising trend of opioid-related deaths that have inundated the Commonwealth in recent years,” said Marylou Sudders, secretary of health and human services, in a statement.
Just this past weekend in Fitchburg, 10 people overdosed and two of them died, prompting warnings of a “dangerous batch” of drugs in that city.
The drugs were so strong that the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, best known by the trade name Narcan, could not revive two of the people who overdosed, and others needed more than one dose, said Fitchburg Fire Chief Kevin D. Roy.
The chief said he does not know what was in the drugs but added the city had never seen so many overdoses in a two-day period. “Certainly, something was up,” he said.
One person overdosed and died Friday, and another died early Saturday, Roy said. Six of the overdoses happened in an eight-hour span Saturday, according to Worcester County District Attorney Joseph D. Early Jr.. Roy said the overdoses dropped off after authorities warned the public Saturday.
Fitchburg had four overdoses in 2012, six in 2013, 12 in 2014, and 13 in 2015.
A Massachusetts law criminalizing fentanyl trafficking took effect in February, with sentences of up to 20 years in prison for selling more than 10 grams.
The health department data released Monday provide the most reliable portrait to date of the opioid crisis in 2015, confirming that 1,379 people died from overdoses. A deeper analysis of cases from 2014 raised the number of confirmed fatal overdoses for that year, to 1,282.
The state’s findings do not distinguish between heroin overdoses and those caused by prescription opioids. Health officials are unable to make that distinction because most prescription opioids, as well as heroin, break down into morphine in the bloodstream. But fentanyl, a synthetic drug, turns into a substance that can be detected by a test.
For the first time, the state’s data provided estimates on emergency medical service response and use of naloxone. The figures show that, in 2015, emergency medical service teams treated at least 11,884 opioid-related incidents and administered naloxone 12,982 times.
The health department also said estimates suggest the opioid death rate for the first quarter of this year is comparable to the same period in 2015.
The data also include overdose rates for counties and for cities and towns. The highest rates are in Essex, Plymouth, Bristol, Barnstable, and Dukes counties.
Men, people age 25 to 44, and Hispanics were especially hard hit in 2015:
■ Men accounted for 1,048 of the 1,379 confirmed overdose deaths.
■ Fifty-seven percent of overdose deaths occurred among people ages 25 to 44. In contrast, only 4 percent of people who died of all causes were in that age group.
■ Nine percent of people who died of overdoses were Hispanic. But only 3 percent of people who died of all causes were Hispanic.