Opioid-related Overdose Deaths Rise

Behavioral Health

BOSTON — The rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased by 8.8% in 2021 compared to 2020, according to preliminary data released recently by the Mass. Department of Public Health (DPH).

Drug overdose deaths in Massachusetts continue to trend lower than the nationwide figures. The rise in death rates reflects effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasingly poisoned drug supply, primarily with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, which remains a persistent factor in opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts.

Preliminary data shows fentanyl was present at a rate of 93% where a toxicology report was available. The presence of fentanyl has increased about 1% per quarter since 2016, including in the pre-pandemic period from 2017 to 2019 when opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts were on the decline.

After fentanyl, cocaine continues to be the next most prevalent drug among opioid-related overdose deaths, present in toxicology reports at a rate of 51% in 2021 — a 5% increase over 2020. Benzodiazepines were present in 31% of opioid-related fatal overdoses. The percentage of benzodiazepines has been declining since the last quarter of 2017.

Alcohol, a newly reported toxicology data point, was present in 29% of opioid-related overdose deaths. This was followed by prescription opioids in 13%, and heroin or likely heroin and amphetamines present in 10 percent. The rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths has been declining since 2014.

The Baker-Polito administration’s Fiscal Year 2023 (FY23) budget proposal invests $543.8 million in total funding for a range of harm-reduction, treatment, and recovery programs that support individuals struggling with substance addiction, as well as programs that work to prevent substance addiction through education, prescription monitoring.

“Tackling the opioid epidemic remains an urgent priority for our administration, which is why we have worked with the Legislature to quadruple funding for substance addiction treatment and prevention, but we know there is more work to do,” said Gov. Charlie Baker. “Today’s report underscores the harmful impact that the COVID-19 pandemic and the scourge of fentanyl have had on those struggling with addiction, and we are committed to continuing our work with the Legislature and our colleagues in the addiction and recovery community to boost access to services and treatment.”

In 2021, the opioid-related overdose death rate in Massachusetts increased to 32.6 per 100,000 people as compared to 29.9 per 100,000 in the prior year. Opioid-related overdose death rates among race and ethnic groups as a whole or by gender remained relatively stable, with Black non-Hispanic and Asian/Pacific Islander populations seeing small decreases and white non-Hispanic and Hispanic populations seeing small increases.

The death rate for American Indian/Alaska Native residents was 118.6 per 100,000. While this population accounts for a small number of opioid-related overdose deaths (13 out of 2,234 confirmed deaths), American Indian/Alaska Native residents statistically had the highest opioid-related overdose death rate among all race/ethnicity groups last year. a