New data has been released that show overall opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts are on the decline. Between Q2 and Q3 of this year, 49 fewer people suffered fatal overdoses. If this trend continues through 2018, Massachusetts will see two consecutive years of overdose death decreases after six consecutive years of increases from 2010–2016. This is good news. But there’s also bad news. Overdose deaths among black males are on the rise, as are deaths in certain counties, and fentanyl use.
The Department of Public Health (DPH) uses three race and ethnicity identifiers to break down statewide demographic information: white, non-Hispanic; black, non-Hispanic; and Hispanic. Each group has suffered traumatically from the opioid crisis in their own way.
For example, more than three quarters of the state’s population identifies as white and statistically more whites have died over overdose than black, non-Hispanics and Hispanics. Hispanics saw the most dramatic increase in overdose deaths from 2014–2016, when the number of fatal overdoses nearly doubled. From 2016–2017, both groups saw a decline.
Opioid Overdose Deaths Among Black Males
Overdose deaths in the black, non-Hispanic community have steadily increased since 2014. But from 2016–2017, overdose deaths declined among black women—they increased among black men by more than 10 per 100,000.
“There is an increase in opioid-related overdose deaths among black males and we are focusing our efforts on tailoring our services to the needs of these communities,” said Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel, MD, MPH. “We are also targeting public awareness campaigns to black communities in the Commonwealth, including a campaign to raise awareness about the importance of carrying naloxone, the opioid reversal medication.”
The African-American community faces a number of societal challenges that play into this increase, especially for men. These include stigmatization and bias when treating African-Americans, which can lead to breakdown of trust between the substance user and the medical professional; the lack of access to information and treatment services for African-Americans; and an over-reliance on faith as a spiritual form of treatment.
Fentanyl on the Rise
For overdose victims who received a toxicology screen, presence of the synthetic opioid fentanyl was found in 90% of cases. The DPH suspects that the majority of fentanyl found in Massachusetts is illicitly produced, meaning most of it does not come from pharmaceutical prescriptions and is either created illegally or smuggled into the state.
“The opioid epidemic, fueled by an all-time high level of fentanyl, remains a tragic public health crisis responsible for taking too many lives in Massachusetts,” said Governor Charlie Baker.
Fentanyl is estimated to be 25–50 times stronger than heroin and 50–100 times stronger than morphine. About 2–3 milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal. That’s roughly the size of 5–7 grains of salt.
Of the 14 counties in Massachusetts, 5 saw increases in overdose deaths from 2016–2017: Essex, Nantucket, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester counties. Overdose deaths are up in Boston and Worcester, the two most populated cities in New England. In Boston, though, fewer residents died over overdose while more non-residents died of overdose, indicating people are traveling to urban centers and overdosing there in higher numbers. In Worcester, increases occurred among both residents and non-residents.
In addition, all these counties except Worcester County are contain significant port cities and towns, making it easier to import substances by boat.
Combating the Opioid Crisis
The state has undertaken several initiatives to combat the opioid crisis. In addition to targeted public awareness campaigns (as seen above), Massachusetts secured $36 million in new federal funding to expand overdose education and naloxone (aka Narcan) distribution, office-based opioid treatment, access to medication-assisted treatment, and recovery support services.
The Gándara Center is also committed to supporting at-risk populations ravaged by the opioid crisis. We’ve hosted Spanish-speaking Narcan training events with Tapestry Health and will continue to put on training sessions in the future. We analyze data, like those provided by DPH, to determine effective long-lasting solutions for the communities we serve.
In addition, the various addiction recovery centers we operate are designed to serve people in different stages of addiction and recovery. We provide services for women, residential services for young women, short-term residential services for men, long-term residential services for Spanish-speaking men, and more.