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Progress On Opioid Crisis Is Uneven In Massachusetts

Needle used for Heroin

             Deaths from opioid overdoses continue to decline in Massachusetts, but the progress is uneven across the state. 

              Opioid-related deaths fell in Massachusetts by about 4 percent from 2016-2018 according to a report released this week by the state’s Department of Public Health.

                But in some parts of the state, the drug addiction crisis has worsened.

                In Hampden County, opioid overdose deaths skyrocketed 84 percent from 2017-2018. In the city of Springfield, 80 deaths in 2018 were drug-related – double the number in each of the last few years.

                Mayor Domenic Sarno said recent steps have been taken to address the epidemic.  The city’s first needle exchange program started operating in February.  City police officers in March began carrying the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. A task force has been created to focus on preventing overdoses.

                "We know what needs to be done here and we are doing it," declared Sarno.

                 Dr. Peter Friedmann, chief research officer at Baystate Health and an addiction specialist, said the higher death rates are because of the prevalence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl and Springfield’s location on a major drug trafficking corridor between Vermont and New York City.

               " So, we were in a situation where there was a change in the heroin supply and we did not have the serices and resources in place yet to deal with that," said Friedmann. "I am hopeful the 2019 numbers will improve."

                Another reason for hope, said Friedmann, is the Hampden County jail later this year will begin a pilot program where inmates can request medication treatment for their opioid addictions.

               " We are seeing expansions coming soon in methadone slots in our region and I think a lot more acceptance of medication as being really the gold standard of treatment," said Friedmann.

                In response to the latest opioid death statistics, Sarno made a plea for the state to provide more money for addiction treatment in Springfield.

                The state health department recently awarded $400,000 to open a Springfield Recovery Support Center.  The facility will be operated by the Gandara Center, which runs outpatient mental health and substance abuse programs at several locations in Massachusetts.

                The Springfield center will offer peer-to-peer support groups, social activities, job search assistance, and access to recovery coaches, according to Henry East-Trou, executive director of Gandara.

                "It is all of those things: a point of referral, a point of support  for members and people in recovery," explained East-Trou.

                Located in a storefront on Worthington Street in downtown Springfield, the recovery center is expected to open in September, said East-Trou.

                "One of the first things we will do is identify members and volunteers who want to be part of this process," said East-Trou.  "Without them we  can't do it. We could have a center but we need the members to be part of all of this."

                Services provided at the center are free.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.
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