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Press Release Massachusetts opioid-related overdose deaths decrease; presence of fentanyl at an all-time high

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  • Department of Public Health

Media Contact for Massachusetts opioid-related overdose deaths decrease; presence of fentanyl at an all-time high

Ann Scales, Director of Media Relations

BOSTON — Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts decreased in the first nine months of 2018 compared to the first nine months of 2017, according to the latest quarterly opioid-related deaths report released today by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). In the first 9 months of 2018, there were a total of 1,518 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths, as compared with 1,538 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in the first 9 months of 2017. This estimated decrease follows a 4 percent decline between 2016 and 2017.

“The opioid epidemic, fueled by an all-time high level of fentanyl, remains a tragic public health crisis responsible for taking too many lives in Massachusetts,” said Governor Charlie Baker. “While there is much work left for all of us to do, we are encouraged that overdose deaths and opioid prescriptions continue to decline as searches on the Commonwealth’s Prescription Monitoring Program increase.”

The latest report also indicates that the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl present in the toxicology of opioid-related overdose deaths continues to rise and reached an all-time high at 90 percent in the second quarter of 2018. Meanwhile, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in those deaths continued to plummet. In 2014, heroin or likely heroin was present in 71 percent of opioid-related deaths; by the second quarter of this year, that number had fallen to 37 percent.

Last month, the Baker Administration filed legislation seeking $5 million to support a regional, multi-agency approach to fentanyl interdiction and crime displacement by Massachusetts municipal police departments.  The funding will supplement surveillance work and overtime costs for units engaged, and officers in the field will also work to get buyers into treatment. In addition, last April, Governor Baker signed legislation that included a long overdue “fentanyl fix” to allow law enforcement to pursue fentanyl traffickers.

``While there are very modest signs of progress, we work to provide continuous treatment for this chronic disease and to identify interventions for the highest risk populations,’’ said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. ``We will continue to expand access to treatment and recovery services in the highest impacted communities.”

While the overall opioid-related overdose death rate declined in 2017, it rose by 44 percent for non-Hispanic black males compared to 2016.

``There is an increase in opioid-related overdose deaths among black males and we are focusing our efforts on tailoring our services to the needs of these communities,’’ said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, MD, MPH. ``We are also targeting public awareness campaigns to black communities in the Commonwealth, including a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of carrying naloxone, the opioid reversal medication.”

Other findings of the 2018 Q3 report include:

  • The percentage of opioid-related overdose deaths where prescription drugs were present has trended downward from 2014 through 2016 and has remained stable since then. In the second quarter of 2018, 17 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths had prescription opioids present in toxicology. 
  • In the third quarter of 2018, there were just over 547,000 Schedule II opioid prescriptions reported to the Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program (MassPAT); this is a 35 percent decrease from the first quarter of 2015 when there were 841,990 Schedule II opioid prescriptions.
  • In the third quarter of 2018, registered MassPAT providers conducted approximately 1.7 million searches, which represented an additional 57,000 searches over the previous quarter.
  • Approximately 246,000 individuals in Massachusetts received prescriptions for Schedule II opioids in the third quarter of 2018; this is a 37 percent decrease from the first quarter of 2015 when 390,532 individuals received these prescriptions.
  • In the second quarter of 2018, the greatest number of suspected opioid-related overdoses treated by Emergency Medical Services continued to be among males aged 25-34, accounting for 25 percent of opioid-related incidents with a known age and gender. 

Last month, Governor Baker announced $36 million in new federal funding to expand overdose education and naloxone distribution, office-based opioid treatment, access to medication-assisted treatment, and recovery support services.

In addition, DPH will use a new $4.7M grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to scale-up prevention and response activities, including improving the timeliness and quality of surveillance data.  DPH will establish an incident command structure in response to the opioid epidemic, enhance MassPAT, and provide training to community health workers, treatment providers, law enforcement and other professionals who work with individuals with opioid use disorder.

In August, Governor Baker signed the Administration’s second major legislative action to address the opioid crisis since taking office, expanding the Commonwealth’s prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery strategies.  Building on the success of the STEP Act, the new law mandates, in part, that all prescribers convert to electronic prescriptions by 2020; creates a commission to establish credentialing standards for recovery coaches; expands medication-assisted treatment to emergency departments and five Houses of Correction; and improves access by creating new pathways to treatment in the emergency department.

For more information on the Commonwealth’s response to the opioid epidemic as well as links to the latest data, visit www.mass.gov/opioidresponse. To get help for a substance use disorder, visit www.helplinema.org or call the Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline at (800) 327-5050.


Media Contact for Massachusetts opioid-related overdose deaths decrease; presence of fentanyl at an all-time high

Department of Public Health 

DPH promotes the health and well-being of all residents by ensuring access to high-quality public health and healthcare services, and by focusing on prevention, wellness and health equity in all people.