After a record high, overdose deaths may be declining slightly in Massachusetts 

The record-breaking pace of the opioid overdose crisis may be slowing, according to preliminary numbers from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The agency estimated a 1.5% decrease in overdose deaths through September of this year, compared to the first nine months of 2021.

Last year, 2,301 Massachusetts residents died after drug overdoses, a 9.4% increase from 2020. State officials welcomed a decline, even if it is a small one.

“Every life lost to opioid overdose is its own tragedy,” said state Public Health Commissioner Margret Cooke, in a statement. “With this report, we are encouraged by the decrease, however modest, in opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts so far this year.”

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

Although the increase in Massachusetts was not as dramatic, it was still of great concern, and state officials and advocates took action.

Since March of 2020, the Baker administration has distributed 210,000 naloxone kits that can help reverse the effects of an overdose. The current state budget includes more than $597 million dollars for harm reduction, addiction treatment and recovery programs.

Massachusetts has started to spend funds from several settlements with opioid drug-makers and distributors, including $5 million for housing for people with a substance use disorder, and $3 million to make addiction treatment medications more available through mobile units and other programs.

Despite these efforts and others, the rate of deaths related to overdoses has remained relatively stable since 2016. Advocates for people who use drugs say that shows the state needs to do much more to fight this epidemic.

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

“The reality is that no one should die from an opioid related overdose,” said Dr. Sarah Wakeman, medical director for substance use disorders at Mass General Brigham. “We know how to reverse an overdose, we know how to prevent people from dying, and we know how to treat the condition.”

Wakeman recommends making naloxone, fentanyl test strips and addiction treatment available in all hospitals, clinics, community agencies and on the street. She urges state support for overdose prevention centers — sometimes called supervised consumption sites — where drug use is monitored and staff deliver oxygen if needed to keep clients alive.

The latest numbers from the state highlight the need for more education about the danger of fentanyl in powder or pills purchased online or on the street. Fentanyl was in 94% of fatal toxicology reports from January through June this year. In 53% of those deaths, the person had taken cocaine, which may have been laced with fentanyl. Roughly one in four opioid overdose deaths also involved benzodiazepines.

For the first time, the state report tracks the veterinary sedative xylazine in fatal overdoses. Cooke says while xylazine was in just 5% of deaths since June 2022, first responders must be aware of it because they need to provide oxygen on the scene as well as naloxone to prevent a death.

Men continue to die after an overdose more frequently than women. Men represented 72%, of all opioid overdose deaths in the state this year, while women represented 28%. Differences in death rates by race and ethnicity are still apparent, especially for Native Americans in Massachusetts.

The report mentions 11 cities and towns where fatal overdoses increased by 20% or more, including Lawrence, Lowell, Lynn and New Bedford.

“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,” said Julie Burns, president of  RIZE Massachusetts, an organization working to end the opioid overdose crisis.

“Though this is not a moment for celebration,” she said, “it is one for hope.”


Headshot of Martha Bebinger

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



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