2016 could be deadliest year in state opioid epidemic

Pills and heroin deaths have dropped, but the addition of fentanyl in supply is causing deadly overdoses.

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HOLYOKE, Mass. (WWLP) – This could be the deadliest year ever for Massachusetts’ opioid epidemic.

“It’s just again a striking reminder of how severe this problem is that we’re facing,” said Dr. Robert Roose, Chief Medical Officer and Vice President of Addiction and Recovery Services at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke.

According to data released Wednesday from the state Department of Public Health, 136 people have died from opioid overdoses in just the first six months of this year. That’s compared to 135 in 2015.

This, despite the state’s 27-and-a-half million dollar investment in combatting the opioid epidemic.

The report also had some promising news: overdose deaths from prescription pills and heroin dropped. However, the synthetic drug fentanyl is a killer. Dr. Robert Roose said fentanyl represented 66 percent of the overdose deaths. He said, “Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin or morphine and so the amount of naloxone that’s needed to reverse an overdose from fentanyl is often far more.” That means first responders will need to carry a larger supply of overdose reversal drugs. Fentanyl is created in foreign factories. Dealers mix it with the heroin to spread their supply further, and thus, make more money. The combination is more potent.

Here’s the danger: Addicts never truly know what they’re injecting into themselves. Fentanyl is such a problem now that support networks like Learn to Cope are actually offering fentanyl drug screenings at their weekly meetings.

Holyoke firefighters witness how an increase in availability of overdose-reversal drugs has saved lives. Holyoke Fire Captain Anthony Cerruti told 22News overdose victims have gone to the fire station seeking help. “We do carry Narcan (the brand name of naloxone) on our apparatus so the firefighters have had to come out and administer Narcan out here in our parking lot,” Captain Cerruti said.

Liz Whynott of Tapestry Health is the director of the syringe access programs, which offers clean syringes to users for free. She said recovery is not a linear process. Addicts can and do relapse. They’re not always ready to enter a rehab program. She said more communication among addicts could prevent overdoses. “I think more needs to be done with the actual drug using population and how to educate people on how to prevent overdose and stay safe until they’re ready for treatment,” Whynot told 22News. She said it is important addicts use with someone else and take turns doing so, to identify an overdose right away. She advises new users to try a small amount of heroin to see if there is fentanyl in it and that it’s not too potent of a dosage.

In July, a new treatment center with 64 beds opened in Franklin County. This fall, 21 more beds will be available for longer term rehab, known as clinical stabilization services, at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital in Holyoke.

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