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Hoping To Lower Death Rate, Springfield Steps Up Response To Drug Overdoses

Needle used for Heroin

  Alarmed by a sharp rise in opioid deaths last year in the third largest city in Massachusetts, officials have taken steps to try to lower the fatality rate.

   After years of efforts to begin a needle exchange program in Springfield, Tapestry Health started operating one in a strip mall storefront in February.  The organization is also distributing opioid overdose antidote kits containing naloxone, which is known by the brand name Narcan.

   "We're in homeless encampments, we're in shooting galleries, we're in alleyways, we're in bus terminals, we're downtown, we're pretty much anywhere we are needed," said Pedro Alvarez, Tapestry Health's  Assistant Director for Urban Drug User Health.

    He estimated that about 200 overdose kits a month are being given out in Springfield.

   " Everyday we try to target a different area .. to try to make sure we are not missing anybody," said Alvarez.

    From 2017-2018, as the number of opioid-linked deaths declined statewide, the number of fatal drug overdoses among Springfield residents more than doubled, according to statistics from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In the same period Springfield had a 27 percent increase in non-fatal overdoses.

   In March, Springfield police officers began carrying Narcan. In one 28-day period this year the police recorded a 56 percent increase in drug overdose calls compared to the same period last year, according to Police Sergeant Brian Elliott.

"And we are administering Narcan in record amounts," said Elliott.

   Speaking at a meeting of the Springfield City Council’s Health and Human Services Committee, Elliott said fentanyl is the drug found in the vast majority of overdoses.

  State law requires hospitals to discuss treatment options with overdose survivors in the emergency department, but most patients choose not to talk about it, according to Erin Daley, Director of Emergency Services at Mercy Medical Center.  She said there has been success in contacting these patients, or their family members, after they’ve gone home.

"This effort is the way we need to move," said Daley.  She said there is a 40 percent higher mortality rate among people who have survived a drug overose.  "The most highest-risk community members are in even more risk, if we don't look for them and offer them assistance."

Helen Caulton-Harris, Springfield’s Commissioner of Health and Human Services, said focus groups she’s attended with drug users reveal a frustration in trying to find treatment services in Spanish.

" Really, what I heard is that classism is alive and well in our treatment modalities and in our systems," said Caulton-Harris.

City Councilor Jesse Lederman said the region continues to suffer from an overall shortage of places where people can obtain treatment for substance abuse and long-term recovery help.

" For the last year, as chairman of ( Health and Human Services Committee), I have continued to hear from experts on the ground that there are not enough resources for individuals who are in the mindset to seek treatment here in the western part of the state," said Lederman.  "It is unacceptable."

Last month, the state’s health department reported that opioid-related overdose deaths fell six percent in the first nine months of 2019 compared to 2018.  The department did not release updated figures on overdose fatalities in individual municipalities.


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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