Incidence of death and overdoses shoot up
While Franklin County may have been late to experience the full brunt of the heroin problem, it’s here in force, and the latest spate of deaths and overdoses mirrors a trend reported throughout the Northeast.
There is very little hard data on the prevalence of heroin and opioid abuse and the damage it does — and no set of recent and comprehensive local numbers.
So, measuring the problem and developing a comprehensive and immediate reporting system for overdoses is among the first tasks the regional Opioid Education and Awareness Task Force has set itself.
That there is an addiction problem and that people are losing their lives is not in question.
The Department of Public Health records six deaths due to drug overdoses in Franklin County in 2011, the most recent year for which comprehensive data is available.
A tour of town records in just Greenfield, Montague and Orange found eight deaths in 2012 in which heroin or opioids were implicated, with several more of causes related to unspecified substance abuse. Nearby, Athol lost four in 2012 and 2013.
Medical examiners pointed to opioids as the cause of three deaths in Greenfield in 2013, with causes of death still pending for 10 residents under the age of 65.
In mid-January of this year, Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said his office counted seven suspected opioid-related deaths in Franklin and Hampshire counties in the 30 days prior, but by Jan. 31 that number was nine, and by late February it was 11.
Greenfield police recorded eight overdoses — one fatal — in the first two weeks of this year. Heroin or opioids were implicated in all eight, and the number represents an eight-fold increase over the first two weeks of 2013.
Police in the smaller towns have grappled with the same problem. Two overdoses in two weeks in January, with one man dead, came as a shock for Deerfield police.
Local police and others have speculated the increase may be due to several possible factors including a lethal increase in the purity of heroin, or users unprepared for the undiluted effect of their usual dose of heroin mixed with something lethal, such as the powerful synthetic painkiller fentanyl identified in batches elsewhere. According to the District Attorney’s Office, fentanyl has not been identified in any of the toxicology reports returned so far.
If the numbers persist, they represent a precipitous growth in the problem. By April, area police, firefighters and doctors reported the winter’s surge in overdoses seemed to have slowed.
— CHRIS CURTIS