The governor of Massachusetts today declared a public health emergency, saying action was needed to curb the state’s opioid addiction epidemic.
Governor Deval Patrick announced the move this afternoon, directing state public health officials to take steps to fight overdoses, stop the epidemic from spreading, help those who are addicted, and develop a long-term solution, a statement issued by the governor’s office said.
The governor’s office also said the administration would dedicate an additional $20 million to increase treatment and recovery services for the general public, and at state prisons and county jails.
“We have an epidemic of opiate abuse in Massachusetts, so we will treat it like the public health crisis it is,” Patrick said in a statement. “I have directed [the Department of Public Health] to take certain immediate actions and to give me further actionable recommendations within 60 days, to address this challenge and better protect the health of people suffering from addiction and the families and loved ones who suffer with them.”
The governor said he had asked Public Health Commissioner Cheryl Bartlett to, among other things, work with the Public Health Council to:
— Allow all first responders to carry and administer naloxone (or Narcan), a drug that can reverse a heroin overdose; and make the drug widely available in pharmacies for concerned family and friends of drug abusers.
— Ban the prescribing and dispensing of any drug that contains hydrocodone only, until a determination that safeguards are in place to protect against diversion, overdose, and misuse. The drug Zohydro, the first single-ingredient hydrocodone drug ever approved for US patients, has sparked controversy, The Associated Press has reported.
— Mandate the use of prescription monitoring by doctors and pharmacies. The program was previously voluntary.
The governor hopes to stem a problem that has exploded in recent months. Heroin overdoses, including more than 185 deaths in less than three months, have become a public health crisis from Cape Cod to the Berkshires.
Taunton has been particularly hard hit. Since the start of the year, scores of overdoses have been reported, including eight fatalities.
The crisis has raised concerns that a potent strain of heroin could be making its way into the region. Suppliers could be cutting heroin, or mixing it to increase profits and potency, with a synthetic substance, possibly the painkiller fentanyl, authorities say.
A third possibility is that drug users could be taking heroin simultaneously with other drugs, specifically prescription drugs such as Percocet.