Fentanyl Fuels Rising Overdose Death Toll In Massachusetts

Aug 8, 2016

      The death rate from the opioid crisis in Massachusetts continues to rise with a powerful synthetic painkiller playing an increasingly larger role.

       There were 488 confirmed opioid overdose deaths in the first six months of 2016, and even more suspected drug-related deaths, putting the state on a pace to eclipse the record number of 1,531 overdose deaths in 2015, according to recent data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

     Sixty-six percent of the confirmed opioid-related deaths so far this year involved fentanyl.  Last year fentanyl was found in the blood of 57 percent of the people who died from drug overdoses in Massachusetts. In 2014, the drug most commonly found in toxicology screens of overdose victims was heroin.

     Fentanyl, which was linked to the death of pop superstar Prince is 50-100 times more powerful than heroin.  The synthetic opioid is often mixed with heroin and sold on the streets.

    Catherine Fennelly of Quincy watched her son, Paul, suffer for many years with drug addiction before fentanyl claimed his life last year.

    "I watched my son,Paul, suffer for eight long years. There is a new face of addiction. It doesn't look like what you would assume; a homeless person on the street, no teeth, you know just a bum. It is not what it is. It is our kids," she said.

    Massachusetts criminalized fentanyl trafficking earlier this year. 

    The opioid addiction crisis has been a top priority of Gov. Charlie Baker. His administration’s efforts have included increasing funding for treatment, making more widely available the overdose-reversing medication naloxone, and encouraging doctors to revise their approach to prescribing opioids to relieve pain.

    Robert Roose, vice president for addiction and recovery services at Sisters of Providence Health System, said the state needs to continue to invest in treatment.

   "The statistics are striking and addiction has sparred no one.  It has affected all of our communities as individuals, family members, colleagues, employers, employees, providers and professionals," said Roose.

   In Hampden County 734 people died of drug overdoses between 2010 and 2015, according to state health department data.

  "  Hampden County continues to struggle with long wait lists to access certain types of treatment. There continues to be a need to increase different levels of care including inpatient and outpatient  medication assisted treatment," said Roose.

   He is a member of the Hampden County Addiction Taskforce that was formed earlier this year by District Attorney Anthony Gulluni to help guide policy and lobby for resources.

   " We are hopeful we can prevent overdoses from happening. We can prevent people from becoming addicted.  Then we are hopeful that for those who are addicted we can provide them with the resources needed.  We are putting together a specific assessment of treatment beds and capacity needed in Hampden Count and put that forward to the governor and ( legislative) leadership," said Gulluni.

   64 new treatment beds became available earlier this year in Greenfield, where an opioid task force involving law enforcement, social service agencies, healthcare professionals and others has been active for several years.