Health

Mass. is seeing an increase in fatal opioid overdoses, and deaths are surging among Black men

"This is the first increase in annual opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in three years."

Keith Bedford / The Boston Globe, File

Overdose deaths in Massachusetts are rising again, with the most drastic increase in deaths occurring among Black non-Hispanic men in the state.

Public health officials announced Wednesday that opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased by five percent in 2020, with the number of fatal overdoses climbing slightly higher than the last peak seen in 2016.

“This is the first increase in annual opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in three years and coincides with the extraordinary public health challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic,” the state Department of Public Health said in a statement.

Fatal overdose rates among Black non-Hispanic males made up the largest increase in the uptick of deaths, according to the state. There were 2,104 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 overall, about 102 more than in 2019 and higher than the peak of 2,102 seen in 2016. But the overdose death rate for Black non-Hispanic males increased by 69 percent in 2020.

It was the biggest change in deaths broken down by ethnic or racial groups, changing from 32.6 to 55.1 per 100,000 people.

According to DPH, between 2019 and 2020 the confirmed opioid-related overdose death rate per 100,000 increased for Black non-Hispanic, Asian Pacific Islander, and Hispanic men, while it decreased for white men. Meanwhile, the death rate for overdoses also increased for Black non-Hispanic, Hispanic, and white women between 2019 and 2020.

“The disparities in overdose trends among Black men underscore the need to continue our public health-centered, data-driven approach to the opioid epidemic that is disproportionately impacting high-risk, high-need priority populations,” Monica Bharel, the state’s public health commissioner, said in a statement. “Too many families have lost loved ones to overdoses and we remain steadfast in our commitment to providing recovery supports needed, especially for those hardest-hit by the opioid crisis.”

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As a whole, men comprised 73 percent of all the opioid-related overdose deaths last year. Fifty-five percent of 2020’s opioid-related deaths occurred in individuals aged 25 to 44 years old, while 36 percent were people aged 45 to 65.

Data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revealed more than 87,000 Americans died of drug overdoses over the 12-month period that ended in September 2020, with the ongoing crisis disproportionately affecting Black Americans. The CDC showed a 29 percent rise in overdose deaths from October 2019 through September 2020 compared with the previous 12-month period.

Massachusetts was among the states with the smallest increases in overdose deaths.

According to the state, the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl continues to be the primary driver of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts, present in about 92 percent of fatalities where a toxicology report was available.

“After fentanyl, cocaine continues to be the next most prevalent drug among opioid-related overdose deaths, present in toxicology reports at a rate of 46 percent in 2020,” DPH said.

But the rate of heroin present in overdose deaths continues on its downward trend with the rate only 14 percent for 2020, according to the state.

In a statement, Gov. Charlie Baker said both the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic have “underscored” the need — and importance — of supporting communities disproportionately impacted by the ongoing crises.

“Our Administration has continued to focus on equity as a core component of our response,” Baker said. “While Massachusetts experienced a smaller increase in drug-related deaths compared to the rest of the country, these trends make clear we have to redouble our efforts. That’s why we have continued to ensure access to life-saving tools like naloxone, focus on prevention strategies especially in communities of color, and provide pathways to treatment and supports for those struggling with addiction.”

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The governor said his administration remains focused on the opioid epidemic and is committed to “funding new and innovative programs to support our residents.”

The governor’s fiscal year 2022 budget proposal includes a total of $375.3 million across state agencies to address substance misuse, a seven percent increase from the previous year.

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