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Baker calls state’s opioid crisis is ‘a relentless foe’

Governor Charlie Baker spoke during a forum on the opioid epidemic.
Governor Charlie Baker spoke during a forum on the opioid epidemic. (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)

Deaths from opioid overdoses in Massachusetts are starting to level off after a slight decline, as deadly fentanyl infiltrates the illicit drug supply, according to data released Friday.

The state Department of Public Health reported 1,518 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in the first nine months of 2018, compared with 1,538 during that period last year.

That’s a scant 1.3 percent drop, likely to be erased as more deaths are tallied.

Overdose mortality fell by 5 percent from 2016 to 2017, but it now appears unlikely that a similar decline will be recorded for 2018.

“This is a relentless foe,” Governor Charlie Baker said Friday at a forum on the opioid crisis hosted by the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation. “I think one of the things that happens sometimes in public life is, we work on something, then we say that we fixed it, and then we move on to something else. This is one where we’re going to have to stay on it for quite a long time.”

Although the state has increased access to addiction treatment and to the overdose-reversing drug naloxone, the prevalence of the powerful synthetic fentanyl has created strong headwinds against those efforts.

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Studies of the drugs in the bodies of those who fatally overdosed show that, in the second quarter of this year, 90 percent had taken synthetic black-market fentanyl, the highest percentage ever. Heroin was present in 37 percent, and prescription painkillers in 17 percent.

Fentanyl is laced into not just heroin but cocaine and other drugs, Baker said at the forum.

“It’s really cheap to make, it’s really easy to move around, and it’s a really significant problem,” he said. “Fentanyl just really wasn’t part of this conversation when we took office four years ago, and it has exploded on the scene in a way that completely changes the dynamic for practically everybody.”

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Baker, a Republican, said state officials are working with local and federal authorities to stem the fentanyl influx.

In the spring, lawmakers passed, and Baker signed, a measure making it easier to prosecute fentanyl traffickers. Last month, Baker filed legislation seeking $5 million to support a coordinated regional approach to fighting fentanyl by Massachusetts municipal police departments.

Even as overdose deaths declined overall in 2017, the death rate went up for one group — increasing 44 percent among non-Hispanic black men. Dr. Monica Bharel, public health commissioner, said that the state is running public awareness campaigns targeted to black communities.

The state’s latest quarterly report on opioid-related deaths also noted:

Painkiller prescriptions in the third quarter of 2018 decreased 35 percent compared with the first quarter of 2015.

Men age 25 to 34 made up the largest group treated by emergency medical services for opioid-related overdoses in the secondquarter of 2018.

During his 20-minute talk Friday, Baker emphasized the far-reaching nature of the crisis, noting that it undoubtedly affects the business leaders attending the event.

“To all the employers in the room, if you think that there aren’t people in your company who are dealing with this issue, if you have more than 20 people working for you, you’re wrong,” he said. “Just don’t think about this in terms of the people who are actually directly dealing with their own addiction. Because this affects husbands and wives and brothers and sisters and sons and daughters and neighbors and co-workers.”

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Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer. Reach Matt Stout at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on twitter @mattpstout