February 10, 2018

Worcester an outlier in preventing opioid deaths

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Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

(Source: Mass. Department of Public Health)

Since 2012, the opioid crisis has rampaged across Massachusetts. The rate of drug-related deaths more than doubled between 2012 and 2016, outpacing the overall U.S. rate significantly, according to amFAR indicators. That despite the fact Massachusetts prescribes fewer opioids per capita than 42 other states.

Worcester has not been spared from the opioid epidemic. The city’s EMS services had 1,613 reported opioid-related overdose calls in 2016, nearly matching the 1,694 calls in the city of Boston despite having a fraction of the population.

Sun graphic / Amy M. Capobianco

(Source: Mass. Department of Public Health)

While most overdoses are not deadly, the rate of fatal overdoses is astonishing. In 2016, there were 2,094 confirmed deaths from opioids in Massachusetts, up from 742 in 2012. Worcester saw opioid-related deaths more than double in the same period, from 29 to 64, according to a November report from the state Department of Public Health.

However, Worcester is fighting back. Drop-off boxes for prescription drugs, public service announcements, and the city’s first needle-exchange program have been part of the effort to slow the epidemic.

The city has also enacted programs to save the lives of people who are in the process of overdosing. Everyone from first responders to librarians has been trained to administer Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids. First responders have put them to good use, with Worcester’s firefighters alone responding to hundreds of calls that require administering Narcan in the past few years.

Read the Sun’s on-the-scenes look at Worcester firefighters’ front-line battle against the opioid epidemic

Although no single solution has been the magic bullet, there are signs Worcester is gaining ground. Of the 25 largest municipalities in Massachusetts, Worcester was one of five to see its opioid deaths per capita drop in 2016. The city also had the lowest overdose death to opioid-related EMS call ratio of that group. While it is difficult to attribute Worcester’s lower ratio to any one reason, it is clear the efforts of city officials and EMS workers are having an effect on saving lives.

Worcester is not the only community that’s fighting back. Plenty of towns and cities, including Boston, have trained thousands of people to administer Narcan. The state government estimated Massachusetts had 10 percent fewer deaths from opioids in the first nine months of 2017 compared with the same period in 2016.

Distributing Narcan does not solve the root of the opioid problem, but there are signs the fight to save lives is working.

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