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In the first nine months of 2020, opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts rose slightly compared to the same period of last year, state health officials said Wednesday.
There were 1,517 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in the first nine months of this year, which is an estimated 33 more deaths than in the first nine months of 2019, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The small increase in overdose deaths aligns with the coronavirus pandemic, which led to major changes in daily life in Massachusetts.
In the months since the pandemic took hold, the state has worked to enact overdose prevention efforts like expanding telehealth services, reducing barriers to treatment, expanding naloxone distribution and receiving federal approval to permit licensed treatment programs to provide take-home doses of medications for opioid use disorder, DPH said in a statement. Naloxone, also known as Narcan, is used to reverse opioid overdose.
“As we battle the COVID-19 pandemic, we remain committed to continuing our work to address the opioid crisis and support our residents,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “We recognize that the stress, anxiety and social isolation brought on by COVID-19 can be especially hard on those dealing with substance use disorder and we remain focused on serving those in need with our multi-pronged strategy to overdose prevention treatments, services, and supports.”
Some opioid-related overdose deaths may have been connected to isolation because of the pandemic.
In response, DPH distributed more than 75,000 naloxone kits from March through September to opioid treatment programs, community health centers, hospital emergency departments and houses of correction, the statement said. For people recently released from incarceration, naloxone kits included information on medications to treat opioid addiction and other critical community resources.
During the first six months of 2020, the rate of fentanyl present among opioid-related overdose deaths where a toxicology report was available was 93%, the statement said. Despite the growth of fentanyl use, the 2020 opioid-related overdose death rate of 29 per 100,000 people is about 5% lower than the 30.6 per 100,000 in 2016. Additionally, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths was 16 percent, which continues a downward trend since 2014, according to DPH.
After fentanyl, cocaine continues to be the next most prevalent drug among opioid-related overdose deaths, DPH said, and was present in toxicology reports at a rate of 46% in the first half of this year.
Naloxone was administered in 96% of acute opioid overdoses during the first six months of 2020 and in that time period, 56.9% of all opioid-related EMS incidents were categorized as acute opioid overdoses, the statement said.
Men comprise 72% of all opioid-related overdose deaths that happened in the first nine months of 2020. DPH said 57% of opioid-related deaths occurred in people who were between 25 and 44 years old and 36% were between 45 and 65 years old.
Opioid-related overdose deaths overall dropped 5% in 2019 since their peak in 2016, when 2,102 people died, according to the report.
“We remain committed to supporting our residents as we battle public health challenges like COVID-19 and the opioid crisis,” said Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito. “Our Administration continues to make progress in the fight against the opioid epidemic and to ensure that life-saving treatments remain accessible across the Commonwealth for the people and families impacted by this disease.”
In August, DPH received a two-year $113.9 million federal grant to continue addressing the opioid epidemic by increasing access to all FDA-approved medications for opioid use disorder, reducing unmet treatment need and reducing opioid misuse and overdose through prevention, intervention, treatment and recovery initiatives. The grant includes nearly $57 million a year in federal funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration through September 2022.
“The opioid epidemic continues to impact too many families and vulnerable populations who’ve had to contend with the added fears and stresses of a pandemic,” said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel. “Through these and other efforts, we have not let up on our efforts to address opioid addiction.”
In the second quarter of 2020, men aged 25 to 34 continued to represent the greatest number of suspected opioid-related incidents treated by EMS, accounting for 23% of opioid-related incidents with a known age and sex, DPH said.
Just more than 219,000 individuals in Massachusetts received prescriptions for Schedule II opioids in the third quarter of 2020, which DPH said is a significant increase from the previous quarter when about 46,000 individuals were receiving these prescriptions. However, it’s nearly a 44% decrease from the first quarter of 2015.
©2020 MassLive.com, Springfield, Mass.
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