‘Still unacceptably high’: Opioid-related overdose deaths still at record numbers in Mass.


New data from the Department of Public Health shows an average 3% increase in opioid-related overdose deaths every year since 2015.

Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff

The number of opioid-related overdose deaths in the commonwealth is still at a record high, according to Department of Public Health data released Wednesday. 

According to data available so far this year, the opioid-related overdose death toll is projected to be similar to last year’s record-setting 2,359 deaths. From January 2023 to September, there were an estimated 1,717 deaths, 32 less than the first nine months of 2022.

There was a slight decrease in deaths between Oct. 2022 and Sept. 2023 compared to the previous 12 months, data showed. Eight fewer people died from an opioid-related overdose in that period than the 2,323 in the previous year’s same time period.

The recently released data also confirms Massachusetts has seen a 3% average increase in opioid-related overdose deaths every year from 2015 to 2022.

Deirdre Calvert, Director Bureau of Substance Addiction Services for DPH, said the state has a number of initiatives to address the crisis, like increasing access to fentanyl testing strips, Narcan, and medications for opiate use disorder. 

“It’s heartbreaking that these numbers are so high. I want to be cautiously optimistic that preliminarily it looks like we have eight less deaths, but it’s still unacceptably high,” Calvert said. “I also know that with the numbers not going up that the interventions and initiatives that we’re doing are making an impact.”

‘Contaminated drug supply’ a growing concern

Fentanyl continues to be a driving factor in overdose deaths; last year, fentanyl was present in 93% of fatal overdoses in the state, with no change in that figure so far this year. 

Of the opioid-related overdose deaths in 2023 with a toxicology report, cocaine was present in 60%, alcohol in 29%, benzodiazepines in 24%, amphetamines in 10%, prescription opioids in 11%, xylazine in 7%, and heroin in 4%. 

The DPH called the drug supply “increasingly toxic.” Potentially contaminated cocaine is a rising concern, the data showed. In 2022, cocaine was present in 53% of opioid-related overdose deaths, and that figure appears to be rising in 2023. 

“We’re very, very concerned about the poisoned, contaminated drug supply that is out there, so individuals who think, ‘well that doesn’t affect me’ are sorely mistaken because we don’t know if those deaths were intentionally using fentanyl or intentionally using cocaine,” Calvert said.

Could overdose prevention centers reverse the numbers?

In addition to fentanyl testing strips, Calvert said an overdose prevention center, or OPC, could reduce opioid-related overdose deaths. DPH released a feasibility report along with the overdose data on Wednesday on such facilities/

OPCs, sometimes called safe consumptions or safe injection sites, are federally illegal. Still, DPH’s report called the centers “evidence-based harm reduction facilities” where people struggling with addiction could use drugs under professional supervision and receive care to reduce fatal overdoses, infectious diseases, and skin infections. Internationally, these centers have existed for more than 30 years.

Services at an OPC could include access to sterile supplies, overdose monitoring, first aid, drug checking services, and referrals to health and social services.

No overdose death has ever been recorded at an OPC, the report said. New York City, Rhode Island, Minnesota, and Philadelphia are all at varying stages of creating their own overdose prevention sites.

The DPH report called the implementation of the center “feasible and necessary.”

Calvert said using drugs has become a “moral” issue, when in reality, implementing OPCs and other initiatives is about increasing medical care. 

“People are using drugs anyways… this brings people from the alleyways and the parks and in their cars and using alone, to a place where they can safely use their drugs under the supervision of a professional,” she said.