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Overdose deaths in Mass. continue to surge

Fatal opioid overdoses rose to 1,574 last year in Massachusetts.
Fatal opioid overdoses rose to 1,574 last year in Massachusetts. (Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff)

Deaths from opioid overdoses continue to surge in Massachusetts, as an influx of illegal fentanyl outpaces the decline in the use of heroin and prescription drugs, according to the state’s latest data.

The quarterly report on overdoses from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, released Monday, shows the same deadly trends that have alarmed policy makers for several years persisted from July through September.

The state has confirmed 1,005 opioid overdose deaths in the first nine months of this year, with an estimated 392 to 470 suspected cases that may be added later. Nearly 1,200 confirmed overdose deaths occurred in the first nine months of 2015.

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The state also updated its count of confirmed opioid overdose fatalities for all of 2015 — 1,574, the most ever.

Marylou Sudders, secretary of health and human services, described the findings as “a sobering reminder of why the opioid crisis is so complex and a top public health priority. This is a crisis that touches every corner of our state, and we will continue our urgent focus expanding treatment access.”

During the three months covered by the new data, 75 treatment beds were added in Taunton and Western Massachusetts.

Three-quarters of overdose victims whose blood was screened showed evidence of fentanyl. Meanwhile, fewer patients received opioid prescriptions than in the same period last year. And heroin deaths dropped at about the same rate as fentanyl deaths increased.

Fentanyl, described as 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, is manufactured in China and Mexico and mixed with heroin or sold as pills that look like painkillers.

“The trends are still troubling,” said Dr. Monica Bharel, public health commissioner. But the state has never before put forth such a focused effort to address opioid addiction, she said, pointing to measures to curtail opioid prescribing, improve availability of treatment and recovery services, and embark on a campaign against stigma.

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“I’m confident and optimistic that’s going to pay off in the long run,” Bharel said.

Emergency medical services reported that nearly 3 percent of transports in the second quarter of 2016 involved overdoses, triple the proportion in the first quarter of 2013.

Rescue workers frequently had to administer the overdose-reversing drug naloxone more than once, a sign of the growing potency of the drugs. Emergency medical workers were recently given permission to administer a higher dose of naloxone, known by the trademark name Narcan.

Mark Kennard, executive director of Project COPE, a Lynn addiction treatment provider and an affiliate of Bridgewell, called the numbers “unsettling and terribly tragic.”

But he found signs of hope. The increase in emergency medical transports for overdoses suggests that people are more willing to call for help than in the past, Kennard said. He credits a “Good Samaritan law” that protects people who report an overdose from arrest for drug possession.

He predicted the wider of use of naloxone will eventually lead to a leveling off of overdose deaths, a phenomenon his agency has documented in Lynn.

Additionally, the decline in opioid prescribing will reduce the incidence of drugs being diverted, he said.

“Within the darkness of these tragic deaths,” he said, “we’re seeing some changes that I think are really positive. I’m hopeful.”


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

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