Overdose deaths down statewide, though local EMS says OD calls remain steady

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BOSTON — Nearly 500 people are believed to have died from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts during the first three months of 2019, according to recently released data from the department of public health.

The data states that 497 people have died or a confirmed or suspected overdose since January, with the highest number of deaths in March at 186.

While the DPH pointed out "particularly notable declines in some pockets of the state," singling out Plymouth County and the city of Brockton, some Berkshire County firefighters say they haven't seen a noticeable decrease in calls.

In Pittsfield, there have been nights this year when the fire department had to respond to five overdoses in one shift, according to Capt. Ron Clement.

The overdoses tend to come in spurts, he said.

"Once it starts we know it's going to go on for a while," he said of a string of overdoses.

While the first-quarter numbers aren't available by county, DPH stats show that 40 people died last year from an opioid-related overdose in the Berkshires. From 2010 to 2018, there were 210 overdose deaths in Berkshire County, according to the DPH.

Firefighters credit the overdose reversal medication Narcan with keeping people alive while rescuers get them to the hospital.

In North Adams, Fire Lt. Michael Sherman thinks that the number of calls to overdoses has been increasing, despite the reported drop in deaths. He attributes the increase in calls to people becoming less fearful of being prosecuted on possession charges.

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"We're seeing people being administered Narcan by people in the building before we even get on scene," he said.

When rescuers arrive, they use a bag valve mask — a manual resuscitator — to help the patients breathe until the drug kicks in, he said.

"It's hard not to put yourself in the [place] of these poor kids' parents," Clement said of responding to overdoses. "We're dealing with a lot of the same people repeatedly ...I don't think they seek the help that they need."

Of the reported deaths in 2018, Fentanyl was present in 89 percent of those where a toxicology screen was completed, the department said.

Sherman said that when firefighters respond to overdoses, there is always a concern that they can be jabbed by a dirty needle.

"We want to help them, but we don't want to get hurt," he said.

Outside of opioids, the presence of some stimulants has been rising. Cocaine was present in about 39 percent of opioid overdose deaths in the fourth quarter of 2018, and amphetamines in about 9 percent, according to the DPH.

"While we remain encouraged that opioid-related overdose deaths have declined over the last two years, the epidemic continues to present very real challenges across Massachusetts that are made worse by the presence of fentanyl, cocaine and amphetamines," Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.

Information from The State House News Service was used in this report.

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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