As the opioid epidemic escalated three years ago into a statewide public health emergency, Taunton boldly came forward and confronted the problem in a public way.
A key moment came in February 2014, when Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey and the White House drug czar held a press conference about the crisis at a city fire station. As if to underscore the situation’s urgency, firefighters were dispatched to a reported overdose during the session.
Despite the city’s direct approach, the number of people killed every year by opioids has grown over the past three years. Last year, there were 36 opioid-related fatalities, up from 11 in 2015 and 14 in 2014, Taunton police said Wednesday.
Nine victims were women, and the rest were men.
There have been no fatalities so far this year, but six people suffered suspected heroin overdoses between Saturday and Monday, including four who were stricken between 5 and 7 p.m. Saturday, said Jennifer Bastille, a Taunton Police Department crime analyst.
The upward climb mirrors rising opioid fatalities statewide. In 2016, State Police investigated 877 deaths suspected of being caused by opioids, a 16 percent increase from the year before. State public health officials are expected to provide a more complete tally of last year’s death toll later this month.
Bastille said at least six of last year’s victims died from acute fentanyl intoxication as the powerful synthetic painkiller supplanted heroin as the drug of choice for some.
“This year was just a big year for seeing straight fentanyl,” Bastille said.
In September, the drug killed two men, ages 32 and 35, neither of whom had histories of drug abuse or criminal conduct, she said. The fatal dose of fentanyl that the 32-year-old ingested was mixed with oxycodone, Bastille said.
She called the men’s deaths “flooring,” given that they hadn’t previously been involved with drugs.
Taunton Mayor Thomas Hoye said he doesn’t regret being one of the first communities to tackle the opioid problem so openly, though finding treatment for everyone is elusive.
“Even with all the progress we’ve made, there’s still not enough treatment opportunities for those seeking help,” said Hoye, who convened the Taunton Opiate Task Force in 2014. “I think that’s the toughest part of it.”
Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learn to Cope, a support network for families, said sometimes people show up at her Taunton office seeking treatment for relatives or asking for naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug.
“All you have to do is walk down the street and you see people that you know that are high, that are using,” she said.
Funding for the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services grew in this year’s state budget from $108 million to more than $125 million, but Governor Charlie Baker slashed $1 million from that sum in December to close a revenue shortfall.
Nancy Paull, chief executive at SSTAR, a substance abuse treatment provider in Fall River, said she worries state leaders won’t boost funding for treatment again for next fiscal year. The organization runs a prevention program in Taunton.
“The epidemic hasn’t gone away just because we’ve had one year in increased funding,” Paull said. “We need to keep working at it extremely hard . . . if we’re going to bring down these deaths and these overdoses.”
Officials said they are doing what they can to curb the drug’s destructive effects.
A needle-exchange program that will also connect people to health care is scheduled to debut next week, Hoye said. In December, a drug court opened in the city’s district courthouse.
Police visit the homes of overdose victims, offering support and information about treatment resources, Bastille said.
The opiate task force is considering plans to organize regular resource fairs at which families could meet with treatment providers and others, said Anne Bisson, cochairwoman of the group and the city’s director of human services.
An alleged Taunton drug dealer is also being prosecuted for the death of a Berkley man who overdosed on fentanyl last April.
Reynolds, who faces manslaughter and other charges, has pleaded not guilty.
For some, Taunton’s open approach is empowering.
Lori Gonsalves said she initially struggled privately as her son, Cory Palazzi, 29, wrestled with heroin and then suffered a brain injury during a 2013 overdose.
She went to the February 2014 press conference with Markey and shared her experiences.
Now Gonsalves and her family tell Palazzi’s story through their organization, Cory’s Cause, and she cochairs the city’s opiate task force.
“It made me realize I do have a voice here. I can go out and I can make a difference,” she said. “I don’t have to be ashamed or embarrassed.”