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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.

Opinion

Opinion

By Cheryl Fasano

Last year alone, drug overdoses killed 72,000 Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that record number reflects a 10% increase from the year before. In Massachusetts alone, there were more than 2,000 deaths due to overdose in 2017. It’s an epidemic that we, as a community, must fight.

Gov. Charlie Baker recently signed into law new legislation that expands opioid-addiction treatment in Massachusetts. The new law has been described as “the most aggressive and progressive” in the country, and, given the crisis of opioid abuse in the Bay State, this approach is most welcome.

One aspect of the law that Mental Health Associates (MHA) believes deserves special recognition is a new set of standards and an established credentialing process for recovery coaches. A recovery coach is someone who has received specialized training to provide guidance and support for people who are just beginning their recovery and are especially vulnerable to relapse. Importantly, a recovery coach also has lived experience with addiction and is in long-term recovery.

When it comes to getting clean and staying clean, a recovery coach has ‘been there’ and ‘gets it’ in a way only someone who has experienced addiction understands. A recovery coach is a critical resource for an individual in recovery.

“You’ve got to find some way to help people stay in the game and stay clean once they get clean,” Baker said. “Creating a credentialing framework and making it possible for services to be reimbursed [by insurance] is a huge part of how we ultimately win this fight.”

MHA applauds the governor and state Legislature on the passage of this crucial new legislation. It makes us even more hopeful for the people we are helping through our recovery-support programs, which, for years, have included the very type of recovery coaches state law now recognizes and standardizes with regard to training and credentialing. The law’s provisions should help make the services of a peer recovery coach available to more people struggling to overcome their addiction.

So, overall this is great news, but it doesn’t mean we are in the clear. To win the war against opioid addiction, we must fight every battle relentlessly. We must improve education so people of all ages understand the life-threatening risks involved with opioids.

We must help people struggling with addiction to get the help they need to get clean and stay on their road of recovery. By working collaboratively, we can challenge the opioid epidemic and prevail — but we can’t let up.

Cheryl Fasano is president and CEO of Mental Health Associates.

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