Fatal drug overdoses reach new peak in U.S., Massachusetts sees slight decrease

As drug overdose deaths across the U.S. hit a new peak last year, Massachusetts saw a slight dip in fatal drug ODs as the Bay State has “targeted funding for things that make a difference,” an addiction treatment and recovery specialist tells the Herald.

More than 71,000 people in the U.S. died from drug overdoses last year, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The 2019 total is a troubling new record for the country.

In Massachusetts, health officials reported a decrease of fatal drug overdoses — a slight drop from 2,244 in 2018, to 2,214 in 2019.

“We have taken it very seriously here, and have been targeting funding for things that make a difference, like treatment services and recovery beds,” said Bill Garr, CEO of Lowell House, a local program that provides addictions services, including inpatient and outpatient treatment and living options.

“It should be a top public health concern for states, like it is in Massachusetts, but it hasn’t been on the radar elsewhere,” he said. “You can now see how other states are not nearly as organized and focused on this epidemic. It’s beginning to hit other states hard.”

Massachusetts has made strides using “every tool at hand to fight the opioid epidemic,” a Massachusetts Department of Public Health spokesman said in a statement.

The Bay State has targeted services to the highest-need populations and communities, along with broadened access to Narcan, expanded treatment and integrated behavioral health.

“Early on in the opioid epidemic in Massachusetts, small towns really focused on the problem of drug use and how we respond to it. That hasn’t happened everywhere in the country,” said Daliah Heller, director of Drug Use Initiatives at Vital Strategies, a global health organization.

“You need to provide support for people instead of forcing them into hiding,” she added.

Heller, like many, said she’s concerned about potential for the coronavirus pandemic to drive an increase in drug usage.

“The physical distancing and shelter-in-place orders are anxiety-provoking experiences, and people turn to substances for comfort,” she said.

Added Garr, “Loneliness and isolation is the real killer for addiction.”

During the pandemic, the Department of Public Health has provided more than 13,000 Narcan kits and more than 1,000 other kits — that included Narcan and local resources — to help reduce the risk of opioid overdose deaths among high risk populations, including people recently released from incarceration.

Telemedicine was also implemented in licensed facilities to provide counseling, group support services and referrals to treatment.

“COVID-19 is demanding a great deal of our focus and attention, but we know the opioid epidemic has not gone away,” Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said in a statement. “Creative and aggressive measures by DPH have ensured uninterrupted treatment and support systems in the midst of a pandemic, including access to medication for our priority populations and those at highest risk.”

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