Slight Dip, But Massachusetts Opioid Overdose Deaths Remain High

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By Sam Drysdale
State House News Service

As the opioid epidemic rages on, preliminary data for 2022 shows a slight decrease from last year’s record high opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts, though overdoses remain high compared to the last two decades.

The rate of opioid-related overdose fatalities in the state increased 11 percent between 2020 and 2021. The first nine months of 2022 so far show an estimated 1.5 percent decrease compared with the same time period in 2021, according to the Massachusetts Public Health Council’s biannual opioid report released Wednesday, December 14.

In the first nine months of this year, there were 1,696 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths. That’s about one death every six days, but it’s also about 25 fewer deaths than in the first nine months of 2021.

For the last six years, starting in 2016, opioid-related overdose deaths have surpassed 2,000 fatalities every year.

Through the first six months of this year, fentanyl was present in 94 percent of toxicology screens of people who died from opioid-related overdoses. The introduction of the potent synthetic opioid into the state’s illicit drug trade has been associated with increasing fatal overdoses for the past few years.

The state’s public health commissioner, Margret Cooke, on Wednesday also warned of a new drug that has begun surfacing in toxicology screens.

Xylazine, a veterinary pain reliever and sedative that is not considered to be safe for humans, began being significantly detected in toxicology screens this year, and has so far been present in 5 percent of opioid-related overdoses in 2022.

The Federal Drug Administration released an alert in November warning health care professionals about xylazine, citing increasing reports around the country of individuals exposed to fentanyl, heroin, and other illicit drugs contaminated with the animal tranquilizer.

“While the prevalence of xylazine is relatively low among opioid-related overdose deaths, it is important to be aware of it, especially for first responders who need to continue to give oxygen in addition to Naloxone for suspected opioid overdoses as Naloxone will not reverse the effects of xylazine,” Cooke said.

Naloxone, medicine that rapidly reverses an opioid overdose, was administered in 97 percent of the acute opioid overdose events during the first nine months of 2022, “which is what we are hoping to see,” Cooke said.

In that time period, from the beginning of this year through September, 72 percent of the 1,340 confirmed Massachusetts residents who have died from opioid overdoses were men, and 28 percent were women.

The largest percentage of those who died in fatal overdoses were ages 35 to 44, representing about 29 percent of all overdoses in the first nine months of the year, followed by age groups 45 to 54 and 25 to 34, who represent 22 percent and 19 percent of fatalities.

Two children below the age of 15 died from confirmed opioid-related overdoses this year.

The large majority of those killed were white, representing 70 percent of the total fatalities.

Since Governor Charlie Baker first took office in 2015, budget spending in opioid recovery programs and harm reduction has increased fivefold across several state agencies from $119 million to $597 million in the fiscal year 2023 budget he signed in July 2022.

Baker and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito said at a roundtable discussion on the opioid epidemic in November that they are proud of looking back at the last eight years of increased funding in this area.

At the same roundtable event, Governor-elect Maura Healey discussed work she’s done as the state’s attorney general suing big pharma for their role in the opioid crisis.

“We’re going to continue to make progress on getting the resources in place to address substance use disorder, to address mental health issues, which we know for far too long in this country just haven’t been given the attention and the resources and the investment that has been needed,” Healey said. “But I think we’ve made great strides as a state to do that.”

Julie Burns, president and chief executive officer of RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, a Boston-based nonprofit whose mission is to end the opioid epidemic in the state, released a statement Wednesday thanking the Baker-Polito administration for “staying laser-focused on the overdose crisis” and said she hopes to work with the incoming Healey-Driscoll administration to “continue to build on a data-driven and equity-based public health approach that makes prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery services readily available to anyone.”

“Though we are finally seeing a decline in deaths from the staggering figures of the last two years, we cannot forget that each number still represents a life lost too soon and devastation for families and communities across the Commonwealth,” Burns said. “Though this is not a moment for celebration, it is one for hope.”


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