Massachusetts Opioid Overdose Death Rate Up 1% in First Nine Months of 2021

BOSTON — Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts rose slightly in the first nine months of 2021 compared to the same time last year, according to preliminary data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).

In the first nine months of the year, there were 1,613 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths, approximately 21 more deaths than in the first nine months of 2020, or a 1% increase. Data released earlier this year noted that black, non-Hispanic men made up the largest increase in opioid-overdose death rates, a finding reinforced by the latest report, underscoring the importance of the Commonwealth’s continued investments to address this issue with a focus on equity.

Throughout the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and related public-health challenges, the Commonwealth has continued to focus on the opioid epidemic, most recently investing more than $45 million in federal dollars to support prevention, treatment, and recovery programs for vulnerable populations. This includes a combined $19 million for early-childhood and youth substance-use prevention, treatment, and recovery programs; $9 million for low-threshold access to treatment for people struggling with opioid-use disorder; $2.8 million for treatment for people experiencing homelessness; and a combined $11.3 million to support transitional and permanent housing programs for adults, families, and young adults in treatment and recovery from substance-abuse disorder.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated substance misuse not only in Massachusetts, but across the country. Our administration has continued to tackle both the opioid epidemic and the COVID-19 pandemic with a focus on equity,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “Since 2015, we have more than doubled spending on substance-misuse programs across state government, boosted the number of treatment beds, and signed two landmark laws to respond to this public-health crisis. We continue to invest in treatment, support, intervention, and education programs, primarily for residents experiencing the highest burden of this epidemic.”

Massachusetts is among the states with the smallest increases nationwide in all drug-overdose deaths between March 2020 and March 2021, according to the latest preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The data show that, while drug-overdose deaths surged by 31% nationally in that time period, Massachusetts’ increase was in the single digits.

“We have seen the impacts of the intersecting COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic on some of our most vulnerable communities,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “As the Commonwealth emerges from the pandemic, we must engage with trusted community-based healthcare providers to provide culturally responsive support and treatment.”

Overall, there were 2,106 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020, a 5% increase over the previous year and just shy of the 2016 peak of 2,110 deaths, according to the latest preliminary data. The 2020 opioid-related overdose death rate of 30.2 per 100,000 people was approximately 1.6% lower than in 2016 (30.7 per 100,000), according to the latest data.

In 2021, the powerful lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl continues to be the main driver of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts. In the first half of 2021, fentanyl was present in 92% of opioid-related deaths where a toxicology report was available, preliminary data show.

Cocaine is the next-most-prevalent drug among opioid-related overdose deaths after fentanyl, present in 52% of toxicology reports in the first six months of 2021, a 13% increase over 2020. In 2017, cocaine was present in 39% of opioid-related overdose deaths.

The rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths was 9% and has been declining since 2014. The presence of benzodiazepines, amphetamines, and prescription opioids in opioid-related overdose deaths remained stable in the first half of the year, toxicology screens show. The percentage of benzodiazepine has been declining since 2018.

In the first half of 2021, males ages 25 to 34 continued to represent the greatest number of suspected opioid-related incidents treated by emergency medical services, accounting for 22% of opioid-related incidents with a known age and sex.