Opioid deaths decline in county, state but concerns remain

  • CONTRIBUTED PHOTOOpioid Task Force Coordinator Debra McLaughlin

Recorder Staff
Published: 5/22/2018 7:55:12 PM

GREENFIELD — The state’s latest data on opioid-related deaths paints a fairly positive picture, but current data that’s available locally depicts a darker scene.

The first three months of 2018 saw opioid-related overdose deaths decline by an estimated 5 percent statewide. Locally, four people have died from suspected unintentional opioid overdoses in the first third of the year, compared to one death in the same time frame the year prior. The data is according to the Massachusetts State Police via the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office.

This year’s early spike in deaths from January through April, reported by the district attorney, shows there could be a rise again in deaths not seen in the lagging state statistics, at a time when local experts were hoping those numbers might stabilize or continue to decline.

In 2017, nine people died from opioid-related deaths, compared to 14 in 2016, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s data released Tuesday.

“Despite the recent and encouraging news about the decline in opioid overdose deaths statewide, current data from the Northwestern District Attorney’s office shows an uptick in fatal overdoses in our region,” coordinator of the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Debra McLaughlin said in an email Tuesday. “We must remain vigilant to do everything we can to save lives as illicit drug makers are doing everything they can to destroy them.”

Information from the state Department of Public Health announced a 6 percent decline in opioid-related deaths from 2016 to 2017. The total numbers went from 2,149 to 2,016. The state releases data quarterly and May is the first time of the year it announces a full set of data for the prior calendar year.

In addition to the Franklin County increase from one to four deaths so far in 2018, the District Attorney’s Office numbers show an increase from five to 13 suspected unintentional opioid overdose deaths.

“While there is still a lot of work to do, we are encouraged to see opioid-related deaths declining and prescriptions for Schedule II drugs significantly decreasing through our reconfigured prescription monitoring program,” Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement. “Our administration was pleased to see the Legislature act on a bill to crack down on fentanyl and now urge them to pass the CARE Act to expand access to treatment and continue the momentum we have against this epidemic.”

Baker’s Public Health Commissioner, Monica Bharel said in the same statement, “While we’re marking progress, we continue to increase access to treatment and recovery supports, and will tailor responses for particular populations including black residents whose overdose death rates are increasing, based on this data.”

McLaughlin said the local data might be influenced by fentanyl in the area, which is “driving this trend as the compounds are constantly evolving and dangerous.”

“There are some troubling trends on the horizon,” McLaughlin said.

The state report released Tuesday noted the continued dangers with fentanyl, a synthetic version of heroin that is more potent. The rate of fentanyl suspected to be involved in opioid-related deaths climbed to 85 percent in 2017.

In February, the original state release of the 2017 data trumpeted what was then estimated as an 8.3 percent decrease from 2016’s record-high 2,155 deaths. The numbers have changed slightly, as usual, given when toxicology reports are released. The decrease from year-to-year was underscored by the fact that the opioid epidemic in the state is still omnipresent: The numbers are still at historic proportions with 2017’s numbers, three times more than any year’s numbers during the 2000s.

The state data typically shows Franklin County to be a step ahead of what happens across the state. A year ago, the state continued to see a rise in opioid-related deaths, while Franklin County was one of two counties that saw a decline. Task Force officials and then-Massachusetts Senate President Stan Rosenberg celebrated the decline, seeing it as no surprise that their efforts were able to curtail the steady rises.

Now, the rest of the state has seen those declines, but the early 2018 numbers have shown Franklin, as well as Hampshire County to have spiked back up, likely by the difficulties posed by fentanyl. The Opioid Task Force, locally, will continue to assess how to best tackle these issues on the ground.

You can reach Joshua Solomon at:


413-772-0261, ext. 264


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