BOSTON The announcement, in late April, stunned many: that last year’s number of opiate overdose deaths in Massachusetts had topped 1,000. Now the state Department of Public Health has revised that estimate — and it’s even worse than initially reported.
Now, 1,256 is the latest estimate of men and women whose deaths last year are attributed to a fatal dose of heroin or an opioid-based painkiller. That’s nearly four people a day statewide. Two dozen cities and towns had 10 or more overdoses (see the table at the bottom of this post). Some municipalities saw a three- or fourfold increase in overdose deaths, as compared with 2013.
“When you are in an epidemic and crisis — which is what we have labeled the opioid deaths in the commonwealth of Massachusetts — the numbers will increase until such time that our efforts at intervention, prevention, treatment really start to take hold,” Marylou Sudders, the state health secretary, told WBUR in an interview.
Added Gov. Charlie Baker in a statement: “[W]e are fighting this disease with every approach available including better analysis of where and why people succumb to the disease.”
Baker created an opioid working group soon after taking office. That group’s report, issued in June, includes 65 recommendations. The administration has launched an ad campaign, and made naloxone, a drug that restores breathing after an overdose, more available. More than 100 new treatment beds have become available so far this year, and the state plans to add another 64 in Greenfield by October.
Sudders says she’s committed to adding treatment that covers both addiction and what is often an underlying mental health issue.
“I know this issue well,” Sudders said. “My mother really died from cirrhosis, in trying to self-medicate her profound clinical depression.”
Sudders says it has taken society a while to acknowledge that addictions are a medical disease, not a lack of willpower, and that they can affect anyone.
“We have a crisis, we will mobilize our political leaders, our community leaders and all of us to treat this as what it is, which is an illness,” Sudders said.
The state increased the initially estimated overdose death count after completing more autopsies and adjusting the prediction model based on this new confirmed death tally. The individual city and town numbers are based on actual deaths, and have not yet been revised. They are expected to rise by at least 209 deaths.
And there’s no sign the onslaught of heroin deaths is letting up. An estimated 312 people died of a suspected overdose in the first three months of this year, the Department of Public Health said.
This post was updated at 7 p.m.