Health

More than 1,600 people in Mass. died of overdoses in the first 9 months of 2021, state report finds

“We can see that there are concerning changes in the underlying numbers.”

Ted S. Warren / AP, File

An estimated 21 more people in Massachusetts died of opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2021, compared to the same period last year, according to new data released Wednesday by the state Department of Public Health.

Fatal overdoses in Mass.

According to the preliminary data released by the department, the state saw 1,613 opioid-related overdose deaths from January through September in 2021, which reflects about a 1 percent increase over the number of deaths seen during the same period in 2020.

Officials said during a presentation to the Public Health Council that overall the number of fatal overdoses in Massachusetts has remained “relatively stable” from 2016 to 2020.

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The numbers from the state include both confirmed and estimated counts for the nine-month stretch.

“We know that these data are going to change over time,” Acting Public Health Commissioner Margret Cooke said.

The state’s latest report on the toll of the opioid epidemic shows that an estimated 2,106 people died from overdoses in Massachusetts in 2020. The death rate of 30.2 deaths per 100,000 residents was about 1.6 percent lower than the peak rate seen in 2016 of 30.7 per 100,000.

The death rate increased by 5 percent between 2019 and 2020, but the state said in its report the increase “is not statistically significant.”

“That does still remain 2 percent lower than our highest rate of 30.7 which is what we saw in 2016,” Cooke said.

Of the deaths in 2020, 73 percent of the fatal opioid overdoses were men, according to the state.

Looking more closely at the breakdown of the deaths by gender and race, Cooke said she remains concerned about the impacts of the opioid epidemic on communities of color in the state, who have also been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We can see that there are concerning changes in the underlying numbers,” Cooke said. “And it underscores our need to focus in on people of color who are being disproportionately impacted and to address treatment needs and social determinants of health.”

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During the first nine months of 2021, the state estimated that of the total fatal overdoses, 14 percent of the deaths occurred among Hispanic residents and 8 percent among Black non-Hispanic residents.

From 2019 to 2020, the fatal overdose rate for Black non-Hispanic men increased by 75 percent, from 33 to 57 per 100,000 people. Meanwhile the fatal overdose rate for both Hispanic and Asian Pacific Islander men also increased from 2019 to 2020, both by 5 percent.

The deaths for white men decreased.

“We see a 15 percent increase in the death rate for all females in 2020, but we particularly see Black non-Hispanic [women] with a 32 percent increase, and Hispanic females with a 68 percent increase,” Cooke said.

The acting public health commissioner stressed that fentanyl remains a “major driver” of the opioid deaths Massachusetts continues to see. For the first half of 2021 among the overdose deaths where a toxicology screen was conducted, the powerful synthetic opioid was present in 92 percent of deaths.

“Despite the rise in the presence of the deadly synthetic opioid fentanyl, overdose deaths have remained relatively stable since 2016,” Cooke said. “We can also see that the presence of fentanyl in opioid-related overdose deaths is beginning to stabilize.”

While Cooke said she’d much prefer to see a decline in the numbers, she pointed out that Massachusetts has not seen the kind of dramatic jump in overdose deaths that has been observed nationally. The United States saw a record number of fatal overdoses in 2020, with the number surging to 93,000 — about a 29 percent increase from the previous year.

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“We will continue to do our work in this area, including expansive use of Narcan, innovative techniques and take home doses, housing first models,” Cooke said. “We know it’s at least making the death rate stable, but we will continue these efforts because there is still so much work to do.”

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