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Top Springfield Health Official Says City Facing Crisis With Drug Deaths

Needle used for Heroin

     Alarmed by a stunning increase in opioid fatalities last year, officials in the city of Springfield, Massachusetts are trying to come up with strategies to bring down the death rate. 

    While Massachusetts has seen an overall decline in the number of opioid-related deaths since 2016, the city of Springfield recorded 80 fatal drug overdoses by its residents in 2018 – double the number from each of the last few years.

     The city’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services Helen Caulton-Harris doesn’t mince words when discussing the drug epidemic in the state’s third largest city.

    " We in the city of Springfield are in a crisis," said Caulton-Harris addressing the City Council's Health and Human Services Committee.

   Caulton-Harris said data on opioid-related deaths from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows four neighborhoods in the city – the North End, South End, Forest Park, and Mason Square – are “disproportionally” impacted.    The death rates were highest among Hispanic men and white men.

    Armed with this data, Caulton-Harris plans to meet with neighborhood leaders to try to come up with effective intervention strategies.

     "I believe you can plan with people, but you can't plan for people, so the neighorhoods need to understand this really is an epidemic," said Caulton-Harris.

    The city’s top public health official said Springfield, and the entire western Massachusetts region, do not have a sufficient number of addiction treatment facilities that will accept patients with MassHealth – the state’s insurance program for low-income people.

    " Treatment on demand only exists in the Hampden County House of Correction, and that really isn't where we should be puting our resources in terms of making sure people in this area are successful in their treatment modalities," said Caulton-Harris.

     Last year, Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi announced his office would reserve additional space in the county jail for people who are civilly committed for addiction treatment. 

    So far this year, the jail has taken in 268 people who have been civilly committed for up to 49 days of treatment, according to Martha Lyman, research director for the Hampden County Sheriff’s Dept.

    " I know there are people who have philosophical differences with stabilization treatment happening inside a correctional facility, but right now that is what we have in western Massachusetts for people, for families,who are so desparate that involuntary commitment is a last resort,"  Lyman told the committee.

    City Councilor Jesse Lederman, the chair of the Health and Human Services Committee, said he plans to advocate for a program where authorities reach out to people immediately following a non-fatal overdose to encourage them to seek treatment.

    "That type of work is taking place in the city of Springfield already, but not at the level it should be," said Lederman.

    In Plymouth County, where overdose deaths have dropped sharply, law enforcement has an agreement with area hospitals that allows a plainclothes officer and a recovery coach to show up at the door of an overdose survivor within 48 hours after they’ve been released from the hospital.

     Also, the committee was told the lag time in reporting statistics on opioid-related deaths by the state health department hampers the ability of health care professionals and law enforcement to spot trends and respond accordingly.

     " One of the questions I asked today is 'Did we see this coming? How are we trackng these numbers in the interim?'," said Lederman. "At this point we are only getting the annual and semi-annual data."

    Connecticut is about to begin an effort to gather real-time data on opioid overdoses by having police officers and first responders put the information into a mobile app.





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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