BOSTON (SHNS) – An average of 38 people per week died of opioids in 2016 with fentanyl contributing substantially to the death toll, according to updated data released Wednesday by the Department of Public Health.
The data publicized Wednesday provides a clearer view of the damage caused last year by the addictive drugs that have riveted the attention of policymakers and strained the capacity of the health system.
The state reported in February that there were 1,465 unintentional opioid overdose deaths in 2016 and another 469 to 562 deaths that were suspected to have involved opioids. The updated data released Wednesday concluded there were 1,933 confirmed opioid-related deaths last year.
In the first three months of 2017, the Department of Public Health recorded 172 confirmed cases of opioid overdose deaths and estimated an additional 242 to 307 deaths stemming from opioids. Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said that the number opioid deaths in the first quarter of 2017 appears to be “about the same” as the same period one year ago, while cautioning that it is “difficult to say quarter to quarter what’s happening.”
“This enhanced level of data collection is a critical resource to help the administration, public safety officials and health care professionals understand the destructive impact of opioid-related overdoses in every corner of the Commonwealth,” said Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement. “We will continue to monitor trends and respond through targeted prevention, treatment and recovery services to break the negative momentum of this crisis.”
Slightly more than 30 people per 100,000 died opioid-related deaths in 2016, which is more than double the 2013 rate and up 16 percent from 2015, according to the data. Emergency medical services providers reported an opioid-related incident in 301 of the 351 communities in Massachusetts during 2016.
Department of Public Health officials reported the data shows “signs of progress in fighting the opioid epidemic as the increase in death rates appears to have slowed.”
State officials have responded to the crisis over the years by funding more treatment beds, issuing directives to health insurers, and stiffening the penalties for trafficking in fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a prescription painkiller that is more potent than heroin. Much of the supply of fentanyl in Massachusetts was “illicitly-produced” rather than being diverted from pharmaceutical supplies.
Bharel said it is difficult for users to tell the difference between heroin and fentanyl, which is much more powerful than heroin and is not commonly prescribed.
“They can look the same,”Bharel said. She said for illicit drug users, “It’s really hard to say what may or may not be in there.”
Bharel said fentanyl overdoses can be treated with naloxone, an overdose-reversing medication that is “widely used” by first responders.
According to the new data, of the 1,899 opioid-related deaths in 2016 where a toxicology screen was available, 69 percent had a positive screen for fentanyl. In the last three months of 2016, heroin appeared to be present in about one third of those who died from opioids, according to the department.
The department changed the way it categorized the data, including in its most recent report deaths of “all intents” including suicides involving opioids. In their report, officials said the change will “not add significantly to the death totals, however it will allow for consistency in interpretation in the data that are presented.”
State officials on Wednesday for the first time release town-by-town data on opioid deaths.