Days after a new state report revealed fentanyl was detected in almost 90 percent of fatal overdoses this year, Gov. Charlie Baker suggested potential further action in the coming weeks aimed at combating the deadly synthetic opioid.
“The federal government, along with the state police and local law enforcement folks, have dramatically upped their games with respect to arrests associated with fentanyl, but there’s obviously a lot more that needs to be done here,” Baker told reporters Tuesday. “And I would expect you’ll hear more from us on this in September because we’ve been talking to some of our colleagues in law enforcement about what else we can do to try to stem the amount of fentanyl that’s available here in Massachusetts and in New England.”
The latest state data on opioid overdoses, released last Friday afternoon, logged a new high in the prevalence of fentanyl. In the first quarter of 2018, fentanyl was found in 89 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths where a toxicology screen occured, up from about 40 percent in 2014.
The report also recorded a drop in overall opioid deaths, which fell from 2,154 in 2016 to 2,071 in 2017, for a 4 percent decrease. Overdose deaths rose in 2017 for non-Hispanic Black males, however, a statistic Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel called “concerning” in a statement.
The death rate among black males rose from 21.5 per 100,000 in 2016 to 31.2 per 100,000 in 2017, according to the Department of Public Health. Bharel said the department will target its community outreach and public awareness campaigns to that population.
The department said its new opioid report tracks “the changing nature of the epidemic.”
Since 2014, the rate of heroin present in opioid-related deaths has been falling, while the rates for fentanyl and cocaine have been trending upward, the report said. Of the 477 individuals who died of an opioid overdose and had a toxicology screen in 2018, 423 tested positive for fentanyl.
In the first quarter of 2018, cocaine (43 percent) and benzodiazepines (42 percent) were present in more opioid-related deaths than heroin or likely heroin (34 percent), according to the report.
State public health officials on Aug. 16 reissued a June clinical advisory to medical providers, warning them about the uptick in overdose deaths with cocaine present and the dangers of fentanyl.
“Fentanyl has particularly rapid onset and illicit fentanyl samples have highly variable potency, both of which increase the risk of overdose death,” the advisory said. “Therefore, people who use cocaine, who do not have tolerance to opioids and are not familiar with the risks of opioid overdose, are at exceptionally high risk of an opioid overdose when using cocaine with fentanyl present. Similar risks could emerge among people who use methamphetamine.”
Baker on Tuesday said fentanyl “is becoming for all intents and purposes the major player in almost all the overdose deaths that we’re dealing with here in Massachusetts, and not just here but in other places as well.”
“This is one issue where the region is working collaboratively,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work with our colleagues in Rhode Island, we’ve done work with our colleagues in Connecticut, colleagues in New Hampshire, because the fentanyl issue in particular, there are no state boundaries around that one.”
Last Thursday, Attorney General Maura Healey announced the indictment of a Lowell man, 31-year-old Steven Lessard, on trafficking and firearms charges after authorities allegedly found 2,100 grams of fentanyl and six guns in his home. Lessard’s March arrest was part of a joint operation by state police assigned to Healey’s office, the New Hampshire U.S. Attorney’s Office, the U.S. Enforcement Administration, the Massachusetts State Police Commonwealth Interstate Narcotics Reduction Enforcement Team, and the Lowell Police.
A new opioid law, which Baker signed on Aug. 9, seeks to expand addiction-prevention measures and access to treatment.
Among other provisions, it requires doctors to check the state’s prescription monitoring program when prescribing benzodiazepine, calls for the Department of Public Health to issue a standing order for the overdose-reversal drug naloxone from a pharmacy, and requires emergency departments to offer medication-assisted addiction treatment.