Over 1,000 Mass. residents died of opioid overdoses so far this year

Early estimates from state health officials show that 1,038 residents have died of opioid overdoses this year — an estimated 5% decrease from the same period last year.

“The overdose death numbers released today demonstrate that the opioid crisis in Massachusetts is still just that: a crisis,” said Leigh Simons Youmans, the senior director of health care policy at the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association, in response to the data shared at the Department of Public Health’s meeting Wednesday morning.

Acting DPH Commissioner Margret Cooke, who presented the data, said the rate of opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased 5% from 2019 to 2020, at 30.2 deaths per 100,000 residents. This number is slightly lower than the 2016 peak of 30.6.

Fentanyl, which is up to 100 times more potent than morphine according to the CDC, has become an increasingly common element in opioid-related deaths.

In 2014, fentanyl contributed to just over 40% of opioid deaths. In 2020, fentanyl was recorded in 92 percent of fatal overdoses where a toxicology screen occurred. Despite this, Cooke said the opioid death rate has remained “relatively stable” since 2016.

Cooke’s report also touched on the disparate rates of opioid death through 2020 among races, particularly among Black men. While death rates declined by 1.5% for white non-Hispanic men from 2019 to 2020, they jumped 23.8 percentage points, to 56.4% of opioid-related overdose death rates, for Black men.

Cooke said the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services plans to invest $40 million over the next four years “specifically for expanding access and enhancing services for Black, Indigenous and people of color communities.”

“I get letters from the Black community saying, you know, we’ve tried all this, what’s going to change?” said Dr. Edward Bernstein, an emergency medicine professor at the Boston University School of Medicine, asking what would work to address the crisis.

He added that access to mental health services, housing, jobs and education are all “key elements” to solving the issue, and advocated for an approach that goes beyond public health alone to also involve community engagement.

Cooke said she agreed and that the state is “putting significant dollars” into a housing-first program that has been “seeing some great success.”

State House News Service contributed to this report.

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