Massachusetts Opioid Overdose Deaths Remain At Elevated Levels

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By Katie Lannan
State House News Service


An estimated 21 more people died of opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same period of 2020, according to new state data.

Preliminary figures presented at a Public Health Council meeting Wednesday, November 10 tracked a total of 1,613 overdose deaths from January through September, up about 1 percent from the 1,592 recorded during the same months in 2020. The totals include both confirmed cases and estimated counts based on a modeling process.

“We know that these data are going to change over time,” acting state public health commissioner Margret Cooke told the council.

The state’s latest report on fatal overdoses shows that 2,106 people died of overdoses last year, the highest number since recorded overdose deaths peaked at 2,110 in 2016.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated substance misuse not only in Massachusetts, but across the country,” Governor Charlie Baker said in a statement released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

Baker said his administration works with a “focus on equity” in efforts to tackle both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic, and pointed to increased spending on substance misuse programs and greater numbers of treatment beds since he took office in 2015.

The rate of overdose deaths in 2020 — 30.2 per 100,000 people — was below the 2016 rate of 30.7 per 100,000, and up 5 percent from the rate of 28.8 recorded in 2019. The state Department of Public Health said in its report that those differences were not statistically significant and the statewide opioid overdose death rate “has been stable for the past several years.”

“While I’m sure we’d all much prefer to see a decline in these efforts, what we do know is that nationally, rates of overdose deaths have significantly increased … with over 90,000 overdose deaths nationally last year,” Cooke said. “We will continue to do our work in this area, including expansive use of Narcan, innovative techniques and take-home doses, housing-first models. We know it’s at least making the death rate stable, but we will continue these efforts because there is so much work to do.”

Men accounted for 73 percent of all opioid overdoses deaths in 2020, Cooke said. She said breaking the data out by sex and race “underscores our need to focus in on people of color who are being disproportionately impacted.”

Cooke said the overdose death rate among black non-Hispanic males increased 75 percent from 2019 to 2020, rising from 33 per 100,000 to 57. The rate also increased for Hispanic and Asian-American/Pacific Islander men, and decreased for white non-Hispanic men.

Calling the figures presented Wednesday “very sobering,” Public Health Council member Harold Cox asked if it would be possible for state Department of Public Health staff to provide a presentation in the future “on the coordinated effort across the state to address” opioid overdoses, including Narcan distribution, needle-exchange programs, and other practices.

Cooke indicated the department would be glad to do so at a future meeting.

Dr. Edward Bernstein, an emergency medicine professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, said he also wanted to receive information about the state’s role in responding to the addiction and homelessness crises at Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston.

“People are coming from other parts of the state, which goes back to some of the things we said around COVID that you can’t just look at one area in itself, but look at the state and how it interacts with one area, people moving in and out of different areas,” Bernstein said. “I think that might tell us something if we get the data on that area, we might be able to learn about where the hot spots are where people are not getting the services or the economic and social conditions that they face are forcing them into this setting.”


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