Opioid overdose deaths up in Berkshires, but local groups say progress is being made

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NORTH ADAMS — New state data released this week show an increase in the number of estimated opioid overdose deaths in Berkshire County for the sixth consecutive year.

The report released by the state Department of Public Health, which includes confirmed and suspected opioid-related deaths, shows there were 30 overdose deaths in Berkshire County in 2015, up from 28 the year before.

But local organizations working to combat the opioid epidemic are confident in the progress being made locally, regardless of the state-reported numbers.

Though it has a higher per-capita overdose death rate than its neighbors to the east — Franklin, Hampden and Hampshire counties — Berkshire County doesn't rank among the worst five counties in the state.

And though the number of deaths in the Berkshires continues to increase, the problem worsened at a sharper rate in several other counties in 2015. Statewide, the number of opioid-related deaths jumped from 1,355 in 2014 to 1,526 last year, an increase of 12.6 percent.

Pittsfield saw the largest number of overdose deaths in the county, with 16 in 2015. North Adams reported five overdose deaths and Adams had three.

Though 2015 marked another year of increases in overdose deaths, it was the smallest increase here since 2010, when the opioid epidemic was in its infancy.

"There is a noticeable increase in opioid poisonings and deaths across the board. It's hard to take, but that's the trend," said Jennifer Kimball, a coordinator for the Berkshire Public Health Alliance's DPH-funded Berkshire Opioid Abuse Prevention Collaborative.

Despite the influx of new and revised data in the DPH report, local officials warn not to get too caught up in the numbers, which can change depending on a number of factors, including how well overdoses are tracked and reported (in the new report, DPH revised its 2014 estimates from 24 to 28 deaths in Berkshire County).

Advocates marked progress in 2015 in the effort to create an infrastructure in the Berkshires for providing prevention and treatment services.

Among the improvements, Berkshire Health Systems announced it was creating a 30-bed unit for in-patient treatment of those who have successfully completed a detox program, as well as a $500,000 investment in the Brien Center to expand its recovery center in Pittsfield.

Several organizations have worked to make naloxone, a drug that can reverse the effects of an overdose, more available to users, their families and first responders.

North Adams Police and Fire now carry naloxone — administering life-saving doses in the first days of being equipped with the drug — and other first responders have reportedly shown interest.

There are state and nationwide efforts to improve prescription monitoring and train doctors on best practices for prescribing pain medication, according to the DPH.

"Despite the increases we're seeing, which I think we expected, there's a lot more happening on the ground to address the spike," Kimball said."There's good things about knowing the numbers, but that in and of itself is very limiting."

Wendy Penner, the director of prevention and wellness at the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, noted that there are efforts coordinated by the Berkshire District Attorney's Office to implement curriculum in schools that can aid in prevention.

"There's a sense of momentum that things are starting to move in a good direction. It's not going to be easy or change overnight, but I think we're making progress," Penner said.

The rise of the use of fentanyl, an extremely potent painkiller, in heroin was noted in the DPH report and by local officials. According to DPH, more than 50 percent of toxicology screens conducted after opioid-related deaths statewide showed the presence of fentanyl.

"The first-time inclusion of data on fentanyl allows us to have a more honest and transparent analysis of the rising trend of opioid-related deaths that have inundated the Commonwealth in recent years," said Secretary of Health and Human Services Marylou Sudders in a press statement. "We will continue to work on prevention and intervention efforts when it comes to heroin and other opioids to eradicate this epidemic."

Increasing accessibility to naloxone could also play a role in the overdose death numbers. While the number of deaths has steadily increased across the state, the number of people receiving emergency medical services due to opioid use has skyrocketed from 6,315 to 11,884 between 2013 and 2015, according to DPH estimates.

Amalio Jusino, the assistant chief at North Adams Ambulance, said responding to overdoses is "pretty much a daily occurrence," and often the patient refuses transport to the hospital.

Jusino, who recently held a public training session on the use of naloxone, also doesn't put too much weight on the data. He said "there's a much big picture" to addiction than just the deaths that can result from it.

Despite the glaring statistics, local leaders are feeling optimistic about the future.

"We're talking more about how we need to change how we've been doing things for a really long time," Kimball said.

Penner believes people are beginning to see the need to "build bridges" after an addict overdoses, and holes in the treatment system are beginning to be filled.

"There's still a lot more to do, but I think more people are talking about it, more resources are being brought to bare, and more gaps are being identified. There's a sense of urgency," Penner said.

Contact Adam Shanks at 413-496-6376.


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