RURALOPIOIDCONFERENCE

The number of opioid-related 911 calls shot up across the Berkshires in the first half of the year, according to data from the state Department of Public Health, although those numbers also include calls that do not involve overdoses. EAGLE FILE PHOTO

Fatal opioid overdoses have risen across Massachusetts amid the coronavirus pandemic, as opioid addiction continues to take a toll on Berkshire County.

Across the commonwealth, 33 more people died from opioid overdoses during the first nine months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to estimates released Wednesday by the state’s Department of Public Health. That brings the total number of confirmed and suspected deaths this year to 1,517.

First responders, law enforcement and addiction treatment groups in the Berkshires told The Eagle they also have seen overdose and fatal overdose numbers trending up.

If the statewide increase holds, that would mark the end of a run of declining overdose deaths in Massachusetts since the 2016 peak. But, Berkshire County has not followed the same trajectory as the rest of the state, with overdose deaths increasing here for several years.

“Health disparities for people who live in rural areas like Berkshire County were already a problem before the pandemic,” said Jennifer Kimball, who coordinates the Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative. “The pandemic has amplified these disparities, and has amplified the overdoses in our community.”

Kimball said her group has seen an increase in opioid overdoses and overdose deaths, especially in Pittsfield, as well as increased use of other substances, such as alcohol.

The number of opioid-related 911 calls shot up across the Berkshires in the first half of the year, according to data from the DPH, although those numbers also include calls that do not involve overdoses. In Pittsfield, there were 177 calls from January through June, compared with 102 over the same period last year. The number of calls also jumped in Great Barrington and Adams.

Pittsfield Police have seen a 40 percent increase in nonfatal overdoses this year compared with last year, according to Detective Sgt. Marc Strout. He told The Eagle the department saw a slight increase in fatal overdoses as well but that increased availability of Narcan kept deaths lower.

He attributed the increase in overdoses, at least in part, to the higher potency of the opioids. The department has seen heroin cut more often with fentanyl than in previous years, Strout said.

North Adams did not see the same increase in overdoses as other municipalities, according to Police Chief Jason Wood. He said the numbers “are pretty much the same” as last year.

Data from the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office from the first half of the year shows a slight increase in fatal overdoses across the county, compared with the same time period last year. Spokesperson Andrew McKeever said that the numbers this year appeared to tick up after the pandemic began.

Jennifer Michaels, medical director for The Brien Center, said the COVID-19 pandemic and related stressors seem to be a clear contributor to the increase.

“People are experiencing more stress,” she said. “And stress is one of the biggest risk factors for relapse.”

A relapse greatly raises the risk of an overdose, Michaels said, and she has seen a significant number of relapses since the pandemic began. She expects that social isolation, financial concerns and the uncertainty of the pandemic all have contributed to the rising numbers.

Addiction experts stressed that emergency rooms are able to safely help patients struggling with addiction during the pandemic, and that other forms of support still are available as well.

“Opioid overdose is preventable,” Kimball said. “Carry naloxone, and do not use alone.”

If you are in crisis, you can call The Brien Center hotline at 800-252-0227. If you are seeking treatment, call the Massachusetts Substance Abuse Helpline at 800-327-5050.

Francesca Paris can be reached at

fparis@berkshireeagle.com and 510-207-2535.