Opioid overdose deaths flat in Mass., despite surge in fentanyl

Death rate declined 5% since 2016

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BOSTON — New data indicates that Massachusetts has made some progress in beating back the tide of opioid overdose deaths, according to the state's public health chief. Commissioner Monica Bharel said the state nonetheless continues to lose too many people to overdoses.

The Department of Public Health on Wednesday released the latest statistics on opioid overdoses, showing a total of 2,023 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in 2019, down from 2,031 in 2018.

"Behind each one of those people is their families, is their communities, and each one of those individuals is representative of a preventable death," Bharel told the Public Health Council. "Our job is to continue those efforts along a public health trajectory. It took us a long time to get where we are in this opioid epidemic, and it will take a sustained effort to continue to see a decrease in the number of deaths and to finally, finally look at substance use disorders as the medical illness that they are."

Confirmed opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts peaked in 2016, at 2,097, according to the DPH. That year, the overdose death rate was 30.5 per 100,000 residents. The DPH estimates a death rate of 29 per 100,000 residents in 2019, representing a 5 percent drop from 2016.

"If we look at 2016 as the peak, we see a stabilization since then," Bharel said. "This decrease is despite the growing presence of fentanyl, which our data shows is a driver of opioid-related death."

In the first nine months of 2019, fentanyl was present in 93.2 percent of confirmed opioid overdose deaths where a toxicology screen occurred, according to the DPH. That rate was 75.6 percent in 2016.

"Thanks to our public health interventions, we've flattened the death rate instead of watching it climb as fentanyl continues to increase in our communities," Bharel said.

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