Why are some communities in Massachusetts seeing double-digit increases in opioid overdose deaths while others are experiencing dramatic declines?
Consider this: Opioid-related fatalities in Hampden County, which includes Holyoke and Springfield, surged 84 percent from 2017 to 2018, according to recently-released state data. Yet in the same period these kinds of deaths declined 26 percent in Plymouth County, which covers Bridgewater and Brockton.
The differences are so striking that state and local officials should make it an imperative to understand why one community has made significant progress while another has not. And then they should share those lessons as widely and quickly as possible.
It’s no accident the number of overdose deaths in Plymouth County, for example, have dropped sharply. Since 2015, police chiefs in the county — now up to 28 of them — have crossed jurisdictional lines and cut through red tape so they can work closely with first responders, local hospitals, and recovery coaches. In other words, Plymouth County has done a lot more than just arming first responders with naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug known as Narcan.
It’s just one part of a bigger strategy; key is the follow-up after a near fatal overdose. Half the time when an overdose survivor is taken to the hospital, he or she refuses treatment and is released.
Because of an agreement Plymouth County law enforcement has made with six hospitals in the area, authorities can track down those who returned home. Often a person overdoses in one town but lives in another, making sharing information beyond jurisdictions critical.
To prevent a relapse, a plainclothes cop and a recovery coach show up within 48 hours at an overdose survivor’s home. Plymouth County Outreach, as the project is called, has been effective because officers use what they call their “front row seat” to overdoses and build a database so they can offer intervention services.
“We’re able to see this stuff in real time,” East Bridgewater Police Chief Scott Allen said. “We use that front row seat to see that.”
To Town of Plymouth Police Chief Michael Botieri, it’s the collaboration of agencies and authorities that don’t normally work so closely with each other that is the game-changer. “It’s about knocking down those barriers,” said Botieri.
There’s also one more thing that has made a difference: the political will to make fighting the opioid epidemic a priority. Whether it is individual police chiefs like Allen and Botieri or politicians like Brockton Mayor Bill Carpenter, communities with declining rates of overdose deaths have leaders who are rolling up their sleeves and figuring it out.
Now that Plymouth County has provided a roadmap, others should be much quicker to replicate it. Similar efforts are emerging in Essex, Norfolk, Bristol, and Middlesex counties, according to the Police Assisted Addiction and Recovery Initiative, a movement of police departments to develop non-arrest methods for treating opioid addiction.
There are clear lessons for Hampden County and other communities that have not reversed the wave of overdoses. It takes a coordinated, county-wide plan involving police, hospitals, and recovery specialists, with a focus on follow-ups. That can make the difference between life and death for those caught up in the scourge of opioids.