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Opioid-related Overdose Deaths Rose Slightly in First Nine Months of 2020

BOSTON — Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased slightly in the first nine months of 2020 compared with the same time last year, according to preliminary data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). In the first nine months of the year, there were 1,517 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths, an estimated 33 more deaths than in the first nine months of 2019.

The estimated uptick coincides with the extraordinary public-health challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic that led the Commonwealth to swiftly enact overdose-prevention efforts, including expanding telehealth services, reducing barriers to treatment, expanding naloxone distribution, and receiving federal approval to permit licensed treatment programs to provide take-home doses of medications for opioid-use disorder.

“As we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain committed to continuing our work to address the opioid crisis and support our residents,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “We recognize that the stress, anxiety, and social isolation brought on by COVID-19 can be especially hard on those dealing with substance-use disorder, and we remain focused on serving those in need with our multi-pronged strategy to overdose-prevention treatments, services, and supports.”

In response to reports of increases in opioid-related overdose deaths that may be tied to isolation and other pandemic-related factors, DPH distributed more than 75,000 naloxone kits from March through September to opioid-treatment programs, community health centers, hospital emergency departments, and houses of correction. For individuals recently released from incarceration, the naloxone kits included information on medications to treat opioid addiction and other critical community resources.

DPH received a two-year, $113.9 million federal grant in August to continue its aggressive response to the opioid epidemic by increasing access to all FDA-approved medications for opioid-use disorder, reducing unmet treatment need, and reducing opioid-misuse and overdose through prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery initiatives. This grant includes nearly $57 million a year in federal funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through September 2022.

“We continue to aggressively target resources that are critical to responding effectively to the opioid crisis,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “We will continue these efforts and work with treatment providers to reduce opioid addiction and overdose deaths.”

Overall, opioid-related overdose deaths dropped 5% in 2019 since their peak in 2016, when 2,102 people died, preliminary data show. Fentanyl has been a persistent factor in many of these deaths. In the first half of 2020, the rate of fentanyl present among opioid-related overdose deaths where a toxicology report was available was 93%. Despite the growth of fentanyl use, the 2020 opioid-related overdose death rate of 29 per 100,000 people is approximately 5% lower than the 30.6 per 100,000 in 2016.

In the first six months of 2020, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths was 16%, continuing a downward trend since 2014. After fentanyl, cocaine continues to be the next-most-prevalent drug among opioid-related overdose deaths, present in toxicology reports at a rate of 46% in the first half of 2020.

Toxicology screens indicate that benzodiazepines, amphetamines, and prescription opioids in opioid-related overdose deaths have remained stable.

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