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Opioid-related deaths decrease in Franklin County while increase statewide

  • Recorder Graphic/Josh Solomon

  • Recorder Graphic/Josh Solomon

  • Recorder Graphic/Josh Solomon

  • Recorder Graphic/Josh Solomon



Recorder Staff
Thursday, May 11, 2017

GREENFIELD — Despite a continued, steep rise in opioid-related overdose deaths across the state, Franklin County is one of the two counties in Massachusetts that saw a dip in deaths from 2015 to 2016, new data released by the state Department of Public Health shows.

Franklin County’s total deaths from opioid-related overdoses decreased from 19 to 14, a 26 percent decrease in deaths. The other county that saw a decrease was Dukes, the island of Martha’s Vineyard, which dropped from seven to three deaths in 2016.

“We’ve changed the attitude here and the attitude is changing across the state,” Franklin County’s Opioid Task Force chairman and founder John F. Merrigan said.

The final tallies from 2016 that came in this month reflect the gravity of the opioid epidemic — 2,069 opioid-related overdose deaths this past year in the state, a 15 percent increase from the prior year and more than double the amount of deaths from 2013.

Bristol County saw the biggest jump from 2015 to 2016, with an increase by 61 deaths, going from 172 to 233.

Greenfield had six opioid-related deaths occur in the town in 2016, while Northampton had eight, North Adams had six and Pittsfield had 17 deaths.

The chief reason attributed to this dramatic hike is the increase in the use of the powerful, synthetic drug fentanyl, which is often in heroin that people take.

Although it may be early to say that Franklin County has turned the corner in how to tackle the latest issues with fentanyl, local leaders are pointing to the importance of the availability of Narcan, which can help prevent overdoses turning into deaths.

“It comes as no surprise that the rate of opioid related deaths in Franklin County has fallen in the last year because of the hard work of the community who organized early and swiftly to help those suffering from addiction with a broad range of strategies and programs,” Senator President Stanley Rosenberg said in a statement to The Recorder. “I look forward to continuing to work at a state and local level to end this crisis.”

Local leaders are cautious to say that the issue is getting better. Deaths decreased to 14 in 2016, but that still is an increase from 2014’s total of 10, which had been a fairly stable number for a few years at the outset of the crisis.

“The reason our numbers went down from a higher number is because we had a higher number,” Chris Decot, a peer counselor at The RECOVER Project in Greenfield, said, referring to the numbers from 2014 to 2016.

He added: “I don’t know if we brought it to everybody’s attention or if everybody is afraid,” Decot said about the epidemic.

Regardless, The RECOVER Project sees the community outreach in Franklin County as a big reason helping to address the everyday issues.

“We have such a small town that we’re all able to walk around and be leaders or be examples,” Kaitlyn John, a fellow peer at The RECOVER Project, said.

A few key efforts community leaders cite are starting to reap benefits: the active presence of community groups, like The RECOVER Project, the availability of the overdose reversal drug Narcan, the work of the Opioid Task Force and the existence of the Franklin Recovery Center addiction rehabilitation facility in Greenfield.

“We have plenty of fentanyl that really could be killing people. If we can continue this drug death reversal and continue to spread it to other areas of Massachusetts — that’s the brass ring that we’re all shooting for,” said Dr. Ruth Potee, a local addiction treatment expert and member of the Opioid Task Force.

Potee is also the medical director of the Franklin Recovery Center, which opened this past year in Greenfield. She said she hopes that the detox center, run via the Behavioral Health Network, is also having an effect on reducing the number of potential deaths.

She also acknowledged the big help Narcan has been in the community.

In Greenfield, emergency medical services responded to nearly twice as many opioid-related incidents in 2016 as they did in 2015, spiking to 69 times. Despite this jump, deaths still decreased. Many leaders are pointing to first responders having Narcan always ready to administer if necessary. Statewide in 2016 emergency medical services used Narcan about 17,000 times in opioid-related incidents.

“There’s a lot more Narcan out in the community than there was last year and the year before — a lot more familiarity with it and a lot more comfort with using it,” said Chairman of Emergency Medicine at Baystate Franklin Medical Center Dr. Rakesh Talati. “We’re having a lot more people who are getting it out there in the community.”

Greenfield Police Chief Robert Haigh echoed sentiments about the importance of Narcan availability

“We need to keep it funded,” Haigh said. “We need to make sure we still have Narcan funded. That’s a big deal.”

Merrigan, head of the Opioid Task Force, said that in the past six months the organization has used about $2,000 for Narcan availability for the police force.

Merrigan said Narcan is key to fighting the epidemic, particularly with the strength of fentanyl, but he also spoke about breaking down gaps in communities to lead to better coverage. He said that he and Rosenberg discussed the success in Franklin County Wednesday, and what is needed to continue to fight the issue across the state.

“If I had to summarize: collaboration, collaboration, collaboration, and we’ve worked very hard to take down the silos because a lot of us prior to this epidemic were working in these silos,” Merrigan said about gaps in conversation between community groups. “I think a lot of these other counties that aren’t having success are having silos.”