Fatal opioid overdoses have declined in parts of Eastern Massachusetts this year, health and law enforcement officials said, offering a glimmer of hope that preventative measures are helping to save lives in the ongoing epidemic.
The reported drop-off this year comes after alarming increases in fatal overdoses in recent years around the United States, including a 16 percent jump in 2016 in Massachusetts, fueled by the widespread availability of fentanyl. But so far this year, deaths in two counties have dropped, an unexpected reversal as opioid-related deaths continue to rapidly rise nationally.
Still, officials interviewed on Thursday — the same day President Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency — cautioned that the statistics reported by a number of district attorneys’ offices do not mean the epidemic is easing. The numbers simply indicate that the Commonwealth is getting better at preventing people from dying after an overdose, while the number of overdose episodes in the state continue to climb, they said.
Unattended opioid-related deaths have dropped this year by 14 percent in Middlesex County and 9 percent in Norfolk County, according to district attorney offices in those two counties. The number of fatal overdoses appears to be easing in Suffolk County and the Cape and Islands, according to data provided by the district attorney offices. Opioid-related deaths in Bristol County are on track to stay the same, while Essex and Plymouth counties are slightly increasing.
The Suffolk district attorney’s office provided data from the Boston Police Department. Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 1 this year, police recorded 98 suspected fatal overdoses, indicating the city could potentially have fewer fatal overdoses in 2017 than the 196 recorded last year. However, the overdoses could vary by season or other factors, making projections difficult.
If those trends hold through the rest of the year, it would challenge the prevailing narrative about the Commonwealth’s fight against drug abuse — that things are getting worse. It would be the first time in five years that opioid deaths have declined in those counties.
The Department of Public Health estimated that 1,979 Massachusetts residents died from an opioid-related overdose in 2016.
Middlesex and Norfolk counties track fatal overdoses monthly and provided percentages illustrating a decrease in fatal overdoses from Jan. 1 to Aug. 1 of 2017, compared with the same period last year. Bristol, Essex, and Plymouth counties, and the Cape and Islands district attorney’s offices do not track overdoses monthly. Those counties gave the number of fatal overdoses for all of 2016 and for this year up to Aug. 1.
Other district attorneys’ offices, including Worcester, did not respond to requests for data, and a Hampden County spokesman said the office does not have access to real-time statistics.
The Public Health Department expects to release statewide data for this year later this month.
“It’s obviously encouraging for people actively trying to affect the crisis,” said Dr. Brian O’Connor, who runs Middlesex Recovery, an office-based clinic with locations in Gloucester, Chelmsford, and Woburn. “But we shouldn’t take that to mean the prevalence of disease has decreased or leveled off; it doesn’t lower our enthusiasm for continuing the fight.”
Middlesex County, the largest in the state, historically has been hit the hardest by opioid-related overdoses. That’s why data released by Middlesex District Attorney Marian Ryan’s office provide an encouraging glimpse into the work being done in the county. The promising results can be seen most clearly in Lowell, which has had a 21 percent decrease in fatal overdoses this year thus far compared to last year.
In an interview Thursday, Ryan attributed that decrease to a “nuanced, multidisciplinary” approach taken by the Lowell Opioid Task Force, which includes emergency personnel, police and fire officials, municipal health workers, doctors, nurses, social workers, substance abuse counselors, and community advocates.
“Lowell has been one of the worst places to get hit in the state,” said Bill Garr, the chief executive of Lowell House, an addiction services organization. “All of the agencies made an effort to pull together, and we’ve been attacking it really well.”
Tewksbury police Chief Timothy Sheehan said the decrease in deaths makes him “cautiously optimistic.” He emphasized the importance of the task force’s preventative work, including the proliferation of the use of Narcan, an overdose-reversing drug.
Police officers across the state hold classes teaching family and friends of those struggling with opioid addiction how to administer the drug. Narcan has also become more easily accessible: Walgreens last year said they would begin selling the antidote, and emergency personnel, businesses, and schools now consistently stock it.
Ryan also attributed the drop in deaths to an EMS program called First Watch, which sends an alert to district attorneys offices and social services agencies when there is a surge in overdoses in a particular area. Officials then take to social media to warn drug users and their families and friends to watch out for an especially dangerous batch of opioids.
Task force members additionally highlighted a series of programs including the Community Opiate Outreach Program, a mobile team including a firefighter, police officer, and recovery coach that meets daily with recent overdose victims; Project CARE, which provides services to children whose parents have suffered an overdose; and an adult diversion and treatment program.
Project CARE is a particularly important program, Ryan said, because addiction can be passed down through generations.
She believes the program will have significant long-term effects and helps what can be the most at-risk group of children: those who have been exposed to an environment where drug use has been normalized.
Catie Edmondson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @CatieEdmondson.