In Massachusetts, Opioid Deaths Decline For Second Year

By Kelly Burch 02/18/19

Officials applaud the state's progress but acknowledge that there's still a long way to go in the fight against the opioid crisis.

Researchers tracking the decline of opioid deaths in Massachusetts

Opioid overdose deaths have declined in Massachusetts for the second year in a row, according to new figures.

State officials credit interventions that limit access to opioid prescriptions, increase access to opioid-overdose reversal drugs, and help connect people with treatment for opioid use disorder. 

The data, which includes confirmed and estimated deaths from opioid overdoses, showed that 1,974 Bay Staters died from opioids in 2018, down about 4% from 2017. Between 2016 and 2017 there was a 2% decline in overdose deaths. 

Monica Bharel, Department of Public Health Commissioner, told WGBH she was pleased with the progress and hopes that opioid overdose deaths continue to decline. 

"When you look from 2016 to now, we are making progress. We are making progress and fighting this devastating opioid epidemic. We’ve seen a 6% decrease, we know the efforts we have in place are beginning to work, and importantly, to me, from a public health point of view, we have to continue our sustained work to bring those deaths down further.”

Since Massachusetts improved its Prescription Monitoring System in 2015, there has been a 35% decline in Schedule II prescriptions, which include opioids. Governor Charlie Baker praised these efforts in a statement, while acknowledging that there is still a long way to go. 

"While we are encouraged to see fewer opioid-related overdose deaths for a second consecutive year and a 35% decrease in reported opioid prescriptions since 2015, the opioid epidemic continues to present a very serious challenge that is made more difficult due to the presence of fentanyl," the governor said. 

Although the progress is positive, not all news is good news. Fentanyl is now present in 89% of opioid deaths in the state, up from less than 30% in 2014.

Among people aged 25-34, opioids account for a staggering 40% of all deaths. In that demographic, opioid overdoses are still increasing. In addition, overdose deaths are reportedly increasing among black men. 

Bharel said that the state needs to focus on these groups. 

"For us at the state level and also at the community level, that gives us the opportunity to say, 'Let's make sure we're engaging and investing in every community,'" she said. "There are some of us who are at highest risk. We want to make sure our work focuses on them."

That includes education, she added, particularly about synthetic opioids. 

"One of the most important public health interventions is awareness and education. When people are using illicit drugs, they have to be aware of fentanyl, that fentanyl is deadly, that fentanyl is present in almost all of the opioid deaths right now."

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.