Overdose deaths reached a record high in Mass. during 2021

A stunning 2,290 people likely died after an overdose in Massachusetts last year, setting a new record high. These confirmed and estimated deaths, released Wednesday by state officials, represent a nearly 9% increase compared to 2020, which translates to 185 more lost lives.

“These are sobering and devastating statistics” said Deirdre Calvert, director of the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Public Health)
(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration and addiction experts said there are two main factors driving the increase. The first is COVID-19 related stresses. Dr. Miriam Komaromy, medical director of the Grayken Center for Addiction at Boston Medical Center, said concerns about jobs and children, as well as illness and grief, have all increased substance use.

“And all of these issues people have been dealing with, largely in isolation,” Komaromy said. “I worry we will continue to see these astronomical numbers as the pandemic continues.”

Preliminary data for the start of 2022 showed a slight decrease in overdose deaths compared with last year, but experts cautioned that those numbers may change.

While the pandemic increased mental health and substance use problems for people of all races, a statewide survey found a greater impact on people of color and members of the LGBTQ community. The newly released opioid numbers showed fatal overdoses for Black people and Native Americans in Massachusetts spiked during COVID.

(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Public Health)
(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

Addiction researchers said the higher death rates for people of color are linked to the second factor fueling more ODs: fentanyl. This opioid can stop breathing in seconds and was detected in 93% of bodies tested after an overdose last year.

Drug monitoring programs in Massachusetts have been finding fentanyl in counterfeit pills, and in cocaine, crack and methamphetamines. That means fentanyl may be killing people who do not know they are ingesting an opioid, and who could be at a higher risk for an overdose.

“People who aren’t used to using opioids don’t have a tolerance for it and can die from a much smaller amount of fentanyl compared to someone who uses opioids habitually,” said Komaromy.

Komaromy and others said educating more people about the need to carry naloxone will help, as will more widespread use of fentanyl test strips, which can detect the drug from tiny samples. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health said it will start stocking test strips for public distribution next month. The department said it has distributed more than 143,000 naloxone kits since March 2020.

Many public health leaders said the surge in OD deaths demonstrates the need for supervised consumption clinics where medical staff can monitor drug use and reverse an overdose, if needed.

“The most recent data is a stark call to action — we are still in this crisis and it is getting worse,” said Carl Sciortino, vice president at Fenway Health, a health care services and advocacy group. “The state legislature needs to immediately pass legislation and support the creation of supervised consumption sites to save lives.”

Sciortino is preparing a report for Somerville, which has pledged to open a supervised consumption site and eliminate overdose deaths within the city. But Sciortino said it will be hard for Somerville to move forward as long as state legal barriers remain.

House and Senate leaders have not responded to questions about their plans to address the rise in opioid deaths or Somerville’s request for a supervised consumption pilot program. Drug prevention and treatment advocates said most of the bills on this issue remain in committee with less than two months left in the formal legislative session.

Gov. Baker has said he doesn’t support supervised consumption clinics. But the opioid epidemic remains an urgent priority for his administration.

“Which is why we have worked with the Legislature to quadruple funding for substance addiction treatment and prevention,” Baker said in a statement Wednesday. “We are committed to continuing our work with the Legislature and our colleagues in the addiction and recovery community to boost access to services and treatment.”

Many health care leaders echoed Baker’s urgency.

“This uptick in opioid-related deaths should serve as a solemn reminder of a crisis that is affecting more lives than ever before,” said Leigh Simons Youmans, senior director for health care policy at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, in a statement. Youmans urged residents to check in on their loved ones and try to help them find services.

The latest numbers show that’s especially important in some more rural areas of the state. Overdose deaths increased 80% in Franklin Country last year, possibly because there are fewer treatment options and transportation is limited. The Baker administration said it is trying to create more mobile treatment options for these harder hit counties.

(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Public Health)
(Courtesy Massachusetts Department of Public Health)

The state Department of Public Health noted that the increase in fatal ODs during the pandemic does not appear to be as severe here as it has been in the country as a whole. But the data is still disheartening for many people fighting to reduce overdose deaths.

Julie Burns, the CEO at RIZE Massachusetts, said she’s deeply saddened.

“Each number represents a life lost to a disease that affects individuals and families from all backgrounds,” Burns said in an email. “Above all, we need to recognize that treatment is not one-size-fits-all; it should be guided by science and respect the dignity of the individual.”


Martha Bebinger Reporter
Martha Bebinger covers health care and other general assignments for WBUR.



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