State's opioid OD deaths climbed to new high in 2020

Opioid overdose deaths in Massachusetts rose by 5 percent in 2020, marking the first increase in three years as the numbers reached a level slightly higher than the previous peak in 2016.

Public health officials announced last Wednesday that in 2020, a year marked by the pandemic and the new challenges it created in accessing health care and social supports, 2,035 people died of confirmed overdose deaths, and predictive modeling suggests there will be another 66 to 70 deaths once those cases are finalized.

As of May 11, the coronavirus had claimed 17,344 lives in Massachusetts.

The DPH’s total 2,104 confirmed and estimated opioid deaths in 2020 is up from the 2,002 recorded in 2019, and slightly above the previous record high of 2,102 in 2016.

The rate of opioid overdose deaths statewide was 30.2 per 100,000 people, or about 1 percent lower than the 30.6 recorded in 2016. The DPH’s quarterly opioid report described that difference as not statistically significant.

“Likewise, the increase in 2020 from 2019 is not statistically significant,” the report said, describing the uptick from 28.7 per 100,000 in 2019. “Taken together, this indicates that the opioid-related overdose death rate has been stable for the past several years.”

Among ethnic and racial groups, Black non-Hispanic males experienced the largest spike in opioid-overdose death rates over the year, with that figure surging from 32.6 to 55.1 per 100,000 people in 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,” Dr. 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.”

Fentanyl was present in 92 percent of opioid deaths where a toxicology report was available in 2020, according to the DPH, and heroin was detected in 14 percent.

“Since 2016, the percentage of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths has decreased, and benzodiazepine has been declining since 2018,” the report said. “Cocaine has increased since 2014, and amphetamines have increased since the fourth quarter of 2016.”

Wednesday’s release of the latest opioid data coincides with a march to the State House, planned by the South End-Roxbury Community Partnership and other groups, that aims to draw attention to homelessness, substance use disorder, and mental health issues in the area near the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard in Boston. Marchers are calling for public officials to respond to conditions that the partnership said “have become increasingly uncomfortable, unmanageable, and unsafe.”

The Department of Public Health, in a press release, singled out a handful of communities that it said experienced notable increases or decreases in fatal opioid overdoses from 2019 to 2020. Boston was among the cities and towns with notable increases, along with Brockton, Holyoke, Salem, Stoughton, Weymouth and Worcester.

Notable decreases were recorded in Attleboro, Lawrence, Leominster, Lowell, Lynn, New Bedford, Northampton, Taunton and Westfield.