Massachusetts Opioid Overdose Deaths Declined 10 Percent In 2023

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By Alison Kuznitz
State House News Service

Massachusetts recorded a significant drop in opioid-related overdose deaths in 2023, forging a potential turning point after the state’s fatality count hit a record high the previous year.

State officials say there were 2,125 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths last year, or 30.2 per 100,000 residents. That marks a 10 percent decline compared to 2022, when the epidemic claimed the lives of 2,357 Bay Staters, at a rate of 33.5 per 100,000.

The state Public Health Council reviewed the data during its meeting last week.

During a briefing with reporters, state public health commissioner Robbie Goldstein said the fatality rate decrease represents the “largest single-year decline in opioid-related overdose deaths we’ve seen in 20 years.” The trend is expected to continue this year, based on initial data from the first three months of 2024, officials say.

Opioid-related overdose fatalities have exceeded 2,000 since 2016. The number of deaths in 2023 is greater than the 2,092 deaths in 2020; 2,007 deaths in 2019; 2,015 deaths in 2018 and 2017; and 2,111 deaths in 2016, according to state data.

“Every overdose death is tragic, preventable and unacceptable,” said Kate Walsh, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Health and Human, in a written statement. “While we are proud and encouraged that fewer Massachusetts residents were lost to overdose last year, we know that inequities persist, and our work is not done. Our understanding of where gaps in treatment and services occur, and the people who we are not yet reaching, drives our work and helps focus our efforts.”

Health officials said 48 percent of all opioid-related overdose deaths in 2023 occurred among individuals ages 25 to 44 years old, and 43 percent of deaths were among those ages 45 to 64. Men accounted for 72 percent of deaths.

Among cities and towns with “notable” decreases in deaths in 2023 compared to the prior year, the state Department of Public Health identified Brockton, Cambridge, Falmouth, Lawrence, Leominster, Lynn, Pittsfield, Randolph, Waltham, and Wareham.

But Holyoke and Taunton saw notable increases.

Goldstein attributed the declining fatality rate in 2023 to the state’s distribution of naloxone, a medication that reverses overdoses, as well as syringe service programs, an overdose prevention hotline, and a drug-checking program that allows officials to understand the lethality of the drug supply here.

“We have one of the best naloxone distribution programs in the country, and we have naloxone everywhere in every community, so that people can use it,” Goldstein said. “We have really pioneered the use of syringe service programs in this state, and to use a harm reduction lens in everything that is being done.”

The state Department of Public Health said it has distributed more than 196,500 naloxone kits, with each kit containing two doses, since 2023. The effort has led to at least 10,206 overdose reversals, officials said.

The state’s public health agency said it has also distributed more than 504,000 free fentanyl test strip kits to providers and community organizations.

The Department of Public Health in December released a report saying health officials were in support of overdose prevention centers, also known as supervised injection sites, where medical professionals are on hand to intervene in potential overdoses. Legislation creating a path for municipalities to open the centers is before the Massachusetts House and Senate Ways and Means committees.

Goldstein referred to the department’s report when asked about how legalizing the injectionsites would affect the state’s overdose fatality rate.

“We highlighted in the report some very specific concerns we have about opening an OPC right now, and that was absent legal liability protections for providers, for those who use the services, and for those who maybe are operating around the services, things like landlords and other people who are in this space,” Goldstein said. “And so we continue to work with our colleagues in the Legislature to try to get those legal liability protections passed, codified into law, so that we can move forward and support communities as they want to open up overdose prevention states.”

Mobile clinics that provide methadone in the Quabbin, Greater Springfield, Greater Boston, Worcester, and Wellfleet regions have been another critical tool in curbing overdose deaths, said Deirdre Calvert, director of Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Substance Addiction Services. She also mentioned the importance of investing in low-threshold housing.

Calvert fought back tears as she noted how much work must still be done to continue combating the opioid epidemic.

“I know I say this all the time, and it’s not just for a headline. But these are people’s children and family members, and they deserve all of the treatment and respect that we can give them,” Calvert said.

Goldstein said the state Department of Public Health’s efforts to address the maternal health crisis, including increasing the use of birth centers and growing the doula workforce, is connected to substance abuse work.

“Over 40 percent of severe maternal morbidity events in the state are related to substance use disorder. It’s the single largest driver of maternal morbidity in the state,” he said.

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