Opioid overdose deaths still on rise locally

  • 2000-2017 numbers are from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. The 2018 figure is from the state police via Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan’s office. The state medical examiner has not yet confirmed the 2018 number, but typically, there isn’t much discrepancy between the preliminary number and the finalized figure, according to Sullivan.

  • Dr. Ruth Potee, an expert on opioid addiction based in Franklin County, speaks Dec. 9 during a memorial service at Helen Hills Hills Chapel in Northampton for Eliza Harper, 26, of Deerfield, who died from a heroin overdose on Nov. 30. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • In this Nov. 28 photo, Justin Marsh looks at a photo of his brother, Michael Warrington, who died two years ago and is being remembered on a locally made quilt relating to the opioid epidemic that was donated by Hampshire Hope to the Northampton Recovery Center. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 2/25/2019 12:19:13 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Although opioid overdose deaths declined by 4 percent statewide in 2018 compared to the previous year, Hampshire County saw a small rise in drug-related fatalities.

Thirty-two residents are suspected to have died of opioid-related overdoses in 2018, compared to 28 in 2017, according to figures from the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

“It’s hard to say how these bad years are created but this was certainly a bad year for Hampshire County,” Northwestern District Attorney David Sullivan said Friday.

The 2018 figure is from the state police via Sullivan’s office. The state medical examiner has not yet confirmed the number, but typically, there isn’t much discrepancy between the preliminary numbers and the finalized figure, Sullivan said.

Despite the small increase in 2018, 2017 saw a drop in opioid-related overdose deaths both statewide and in Hampshire County. In 2016, overdose deaths in Hampshire County peaked at 36.

When asked what she attributed last year’s increase to, Cherry Sullivan, program coordinator of Hampshire HOPE, said, “Fentanyl, hands down. Fentanyl is really problematic. I think that’s a huge issue for us.”

Hampshire HOPE is a coalition that aims to help those with an opioid addiction and whose members include the Northwestern district attorney’s office.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that can be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Liz Whynott, director of harm reduction at Tapestry, and David Sullivan both agree that an increase in fentanyl is a major cause for the 2018 deaths.

Of opioid-related deaths statewide in 2018 that also had a toxicology report, 89 percent tested positive for fentanyl, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. That percentage has increased from roughly 40 percent in 2014 and is trending upward.

Jess Tilley, executive director of the New England Users Union, an outreach organization for drug users, does on-the-ground work and fentanyl testing. The potency of a batch of heroin used to be stable for longer, but she’s noticed that change.

“Now it seems to change every week, every couple of days,” she said.

That means that users may not realize the potency change, and the same amount they used the day before could result in an overdose.

Tilley thinks she needs to increasingly work with unlikely allies, such as hospitals. “I think we have to be willing to try any method possible right now,” she said.

Other barriers to overcoming the opioid crisis in Hampshire County include difficulty getting people into treatment due to lack of availability and lack of streamlined services, Cherry Sullivan said.

“If someone is asking for help, we need to get them help now,” she said. “If someone cut their arm open and they’re bleeding all over the place, we’re not going to say sorry, we don’t have stitches for you now.”

Until a few years ago there weren’t any treatment centers in Hampshire County, David Sullivan said, but those have increased.

However, Cherry Sullivan noted, not everyone needs to go to detox; some people can be successful on medication-assisted treatment, she said.

“I think it’s important for us to look at the data, and I also think it’s important for us to recognize that this data is not telling the whole story,” Cherry Sullivan said. “It doesn’t mean there isn’t good work happening in our community — because there is.”

Hampshire HOPE is working on stigma reduction through projects such as the creation of a quilt honoring those who have died of overdoses that was unveiled at the Northampton Recovery Center in November.

Cherry Sullivan said they are also working on training emergency providers such as nurses, and getting Narcan put in Northampton public restrooms.

David Sullivan’s takeaway: “I think the real lesson is that you have to be vigilant,” he said. “This crisis is not going away anytime soon.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com

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