Opioid-related Overdose Deaths in Massachusetts Rose by 5% in 2020

BOSTON — Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased by 5% in 2020 compared to 2019, with rates among black, non-Hispanic males making up the largest increase, according to preliminary data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH).

There were 2,104 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020, an estimated 102 more than the prior year and slightly above the previous peak of 2,102 in 2016. This is the first increase in annual opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts in three years and coincides with the extraordinary public-health challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic. Among black, non-Hispanic males, the confirmed opioid-related overdose death rate increased the most — by 69%, from 32.6 to 55.1 per 100,000 people, the highest increase of any ethnic or racial group in 2020.

Nationwide, Massachusetts is among the states with the smallest increases in all drug-overdose deaths. Preliminary data released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show drug-overdose deaths surged by 29% nationally in the year between September 2019 and September 2020, with Massachusetts showing a smaller increase in the single digits. Overall, the 2020 opioid-related overdose death rate of 30.2 per 100,000 people is approximately 1% lower than in 2016 (30.6 per 100,000).

The Baker-Polito administration continues to invest in efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, especially among the Commonwealth’s most disproportionately impacted communities, building on its work to double spending to address this crisis since 2015. Recent investments have focused on new intervention efforts among youth and expanded supports for people in recovery, and the administration’s FY 2022 budget proposal includes a total of $375.3 million across state agencies to address substance misuse, a 7% increase over last year.

“Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic have underscored the importance of supporting disproportionately impacted communities, and as we address both issues, our administration has continued to focus on equity as a core component of our response,” Gov. Charlie Baker said. “While Massachusetts experienced a smaller increase in drug-related deaths compared to the rest of the country, these trends make clear we have to redouble our efforts. That’s why we have continued to ensure access to life-saving tools like naloxone; focus on prevention strategies, especially in communities of color; and provide pathways to treatment and supports for those struggling with addiction. We remain focused on fighting the opioid epidemic even as we continue to battle COVID, and are committed to funding new and innovative programs to support our residents.”

The administration continues to invest millions of dollars in federal grants toward new substance-use treatment, support, intervention, and education programs, primarily for residents experiencing the highest burden of this epidemic, including those in communities of color and individuals with a history of homelessness or incarceration. Most recently, this includes a combined $9.4 million for high-school substance-use and mental-health response teams, youth substance-use prevention programs, and support services for young adults in recovery. Additionally, $2.3 million in federal grants will fund a re-entry pilot to provide recovery-based wraparound services for incarcerated black and Latino men with a history of substance abuse who are at risk of fatal overdoses upon release.

“The unprecedented challenges created by the COVID-19 pandemic did not slow down our aggressive fight against the opioid epidemic,” said Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders. “We will continue to target critical resources and develop innovative solutions to reduce opioid addiction and overdose deaths.”

Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel added that “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. Too many families have lost loved ones to overdoses, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to providing the recovery supports needed, especially for those hardest-hit by the opioid crisis.”