Overdose deaths decline in region in 2022, bucking state trend


Staff Writer

Published: 06-27-2023 10:54 PM

While numbers for Massachusetts as a whole show 2022 was the worst year on record for opioid-related deaths, Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties saw significant declines in fatalities last year.

Officials with the Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region are attributing the county’s 25% drop in deaths to an overdose follow-up and outreach program it launched in 2021 known as CONNECT.

“As opioid-related fatalities continue to climb in the state, post-opioid overdose follow-up and outreach programs play a crucial role to reduce fatal and non-fatal overdoses,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan, a task force co-chair, said in a statement.

Statewide, there were 2,357 confirmed and estimated fatal opioid-related overdoses in 2022, according to data the Department of Public Health released last week. The fatality rate of 33.5 per 100,000 people reflects a 2.5% increase over 2021 and a 9.1% increase from 2016, the pre-pandemic peak.

Worcester County saw the largest increase with 331 deaths in 2022, a rise of 17.8%.

Countering the grim statistics, besides Franklin County, opioid-related overdose deaths fell by almost 23% in Berkshire County and by 16% in Hampshire County.

Although the year-to-year decrease in Franklin County is significant, from 48 deaths to 36, according to information provided by the Opioid Task Force, the figure for 2022 is still higher than figures recorded in previous years. The pre-pandemic high of 30 fatalities in the county in 2018 was eclipsed in 2020, when 33 deaths were recorded. 2021’s total of 48 deaths represented a 45% increase.

The CONNECT program, which stands for Community Opportunity, Network, Navigation, Exploration and Connection Team, is a regional collaboration of law enforcement, community health centers and outreach organizations created to combat the opioid epidemic in Franklin County. Supported by federal and state funds, the program provides free, confidential resources and referrals for those who have experienced or witnessed an overdose. According to the Opioid Task Force, CONNECT succeeds through rapid response and provision of a range of services such as peer support and drug therapy, as well as expanding availability of the overdose reversal treatment naloxone.

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“The lack of post-opioid overdose follow-up services has been a huge gap in our rural community,” John Merrigan, a co-chair of the task force, said in a statement. “CONNECT has stepped into this breach. We are grateful to see how this collective effort has made a big impact.”

Hampshire County efforts

Hampshire HOPE operates a similar program called DART (Drug Addiction Recovery Team) in Hampshire County, and Coordinator Taylor McAndrew sees that playing a role in the county’s 16% drop in overdose deaths in 2022, from 44 to 37.

DART is a partnership among the Northampton health department, area police departments, Tapestry, recovery coaches and others that connects those who have experienced an overdose with services and supports.

Such in-person interventions were interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, noted McAndrew, who was formerly manager of the CONNECT program before taking over at Hampshire HOPE.

McAndrew said she’s encouraged by the decline in fatalities, but she noted that the numbers have plateaued, going back to 2016, when fentanyl began infiltrating the illicit drug supply. Fentanyl, cheaper and many times more potent than heroin, remains a major threat to drug users, and these days is used to adulterate other drugs besides heroin, such as cocaine, McAndrew said.

Another emerging concern is the animal tranquilizer xylazine, legal and easily obtainable, which is sometimes mixed with fentanyl. A heavy non-opioid sedative that can cause skin abscesses and ulcers, it suppresses breathing and heart rate and is difficult to counteract, McAndrew said.

For opioid overdoses, Narcan is effective, and its increased availability is key to saving lives, McAndrew said. Hundreds of Narcan kits are distributed yearly just through the Northampton Department of Health and Human Services, she said.

Fentanyl testing strips, which let people test their drugs for the presence of the deadly additive, are also available for free through the health department.

Additionally, the National Institutes of Health-funded HEALing Communities Study is bringing researchers from the Boston Medical Center to several communities across the state, including Belchertown and Ware, to work with local groups and individuals on reducing overdose deaths.

Looking forward, McAndrew said communities can expect to begin receiving funds from the nationwide opioid settlement reached with manufacturers and distributors of opioids. She said Hampshire HOPE is looking to bring people together to help decide how to spend the money.

“It’s a chance to plan ahead,” she said.