Locals share successes in wake of 10% drop in fatal overdoses statewide

Local and state officials at a meeting of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region at Greenfield Community College on Wednesday.

Local and state officials at a meeting of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region at Greenfield Community College on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

From left Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan; Julia Newhall, director of opioid abatement strategy and implementation; Deidre Calvert, director of the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services; state Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein; and Christopher Donelan, Franklin County sheriff and co-chair of the Opioid Task Force, at Greenfield Community College on Wednesday.

From left Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan; Julia Newhall, director of opioid abatement strategy and implementation; Deidre Calvert, director of the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services; state Department of Public Health Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein; and Christopher Donelan, Franklin County sheriff and co-chair of the Opioid Task Force, at Greenfield Community College on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-12-2024 6:04 PM

GREENFIELD — As newly released data shows 2023 saw the largest decline in opioid-related overdose deaths in 13 years, members of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region shared their successes with representatives from the state Department of Public Health on Wednesday afternoon.

At its Executive Council meeting at Greenfield Community College, the Opioid Task Force gave DPH Commissioner Dr. Robert Goldstein a rundown on the successful prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery programs and initiatives the wide-ranging coalition has brought into the region since its founding in 2013.

“It’s been very impactful for us as a community,” said Franklin County Sheriff and Opioid Task Force Co-Chair Christopher Donelan, adding that he suspects the opioid epidemic would have been drastically worse without the task force. “We’re the model that people have followed and we’re very proud of that.”

Goldstein was joined by Bureau of Substance Addiction Services Director Deirdre Calvert and Julia Newhall, director of opioid abatement strategy and implementation. Following the meeting at GCC, Goldstein, Calvert and Newhall traveled to the Franklin Regional Council of Governments’ office to meet with community health department staff.

The meeting with state officials came the same day that the DPH announced that preliminary data shows opioid-related overdose deaths decreased by 10% in Massachusetts, representing the largest single-year decline since 2009. In 2023, there were 2,125 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths, which was 232 fewer than in 2022.

While this came as welcome news for the state as a whole, Opioid Task Force Coordinator Debra McLaughlin noted the 2023 preliminary data for Franklin County and Athol shows 32 fatal opioid-related overdoses compared to 28 the year prior.

“This has not been our experience here,” McLaughlin said, noting she was “heartened” by the statewide numbers. “We have a number of disparities that we are continuing to address in our region.”

In other areas, though, the Opioid Task Force has seen great success. Kat Allen, coalition coordinator with FRCOG, said the partnerships they’ve formed with schools and community agencies for prevention programs have contributed to youth substance abuse plummeting from 53% in 2003 to just 25%.

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Heather Bialecki-Canning, executive director of the North Quabbin Community Coalition, added that a lot of the work has been focused on ensuring there’s a consistent message everywhere from Athol to Rowe, and ensuring that silos between agencies are broken down as many issues are interconnected.

“Substance misuse prevention is heavily tied into addressing mental health concerns, addressing trauma and addressing racial equity,” Bialecki-Canning said, adding that resources in school are essential to this work. “We need more. We need them to be stronger and more connected to the community outside the school walls.”

While the prevention successes are a step forward, opioid-related treatment work here in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region is leading the nation. In 2013, there were zero residential treatment beds in the region and in 2024, there are now 324. Northwestern District Attorney and Opioid Task Force Co-Chair David Sullivan called this “tremendous” progress.

Additionally, Dr. Ruth Potee and Donelan worked in 2019 to secure a license for the Franklin County Jail and House of Correction to be one of the first jails in the United States to administer methadone to inmates.

“If every county looked like Franklin County, I think our overdose rates would have dropped further,” Potee said, adding that “our little tiny country jail” has trained others across the country in administering methadone.

One of the last major topics discussed was the complicated funding formula for a nationwide opioid settlement, which FRCOG Director of Community Health Phoebe Walker said puts rural communities at a disadvantage.

She noted parameters like school staff are put into the equation and severely disadvantage towns that have regional districts, providing an example of a disparity between two towns with similar populations. Gill will receive just under $5,500 over the course of the opioid settlement, while Erving is slated to receive nearly $87,000, according to state data.

“This formula is really inequitable for rural communities,” Walker said, “a place where there is significant substance abuse.”

The DPH officials said they’ve heard these concerns from other communities, but due to the nationwide aspect of the opioid settlement, the funding is fixed. To help towns that are getting only a small amount of money, the agency is looking into grant programs for municipalities.

“Sadly, I’ve received the same information that this is just set in stone and there is no changing it,” said Newhall.

The Opioid Task Force Executive Council will reconvene in September. For more information about the regional coalition and its work, visit opioidtaskforce.org.

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.