BOSTON — Opioid-related deaths declined slightly in Massachusetts last year, continuing a downward trend that lawmakers, health officials and substance abuse counselors attribute to public access to the overdose reversing drug naloxone.
State health officials say the number of opioid-related deaths fell about 4 percent last year, which follows a 2 percent reduction from the prior year.
The state Department of Public Health counted 1,974 estimated and confirmed deaths in 2018, compared to 2,056 deaths a year earlier.
"The decrease in overdose deaths provides some hope that our approach to combating the opioid epidemic is having an impact,” said Marylou Sudders, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. "We must maintain an intense focus on this crisis and continue to expand opportunities to increase harm reduction initiatives and expand treatment and recovery services."
Rep. Paul Tucker, D-Salem, said the number of overdose deaths is still troubling but the downward trend shows that the state's response is helping.
"There's so much more work to be done, but at least we can say that what is been done is pointing us in the right direction," he said.
Tucker and other lawmakers credit efforts to make naloxone more readily available with helping to bend a trend of fatalities. Naloxone, also sold under the brand name Narcan, counteracts the effects of heroin, fentanyl and other opioids.
A state program created by lawmakers three years ago purchases the antidote in bulk, then sells it to communities at a cheaper cost than they would otherwise get. The state has also eased pharmacy regulations to give the public more access to the life-saving drug, which can now be purchased without a prescription.
"We've expanded access to Narcan and done a better job at addressing the culture of addiction," said Rep. Andy Vargas, D-Haverhill. "But we need to do more on prevention and ensuring that more people have access to treatment, regardless of the type of health insurance they have."
Health officials say deaths from the powerful synthetic drug fentanyl continue to increase, even as the presence of heroin in opioid-related fatalities declines.
Fentanyl was found in at least 1,292 cases of opioid-related deaths last year — more than 89 percent of all the fatalities, according to health officials.
Additionally, the presence of stimulants such as cocaine and amphetamines in opioid-related overdose deaths is increasing, health officials say.
Nearly three-quarters of last year’s overdose victims were male, between ages 25 and 54.
The state report also notes that overdose cases where individuals are revived appear to be declining slightly after several years of rising.
Last year, ambulance companies responded to 16,122 opioid overdoses in Massachusetts, 6,300 less than were reported two years earlier, according to the report.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed two major bills aimed at addressing the opioid crisis during his first term in office and says it will remain a priority in his second term.
Baker wants $266 million for treatment and services as part of his preliminary budget, including $5 million to help local police coordinate efforts to catch fentanyl dealers. Baker has also said the state plans to use $36 million in federal funding in the coming year for opioid addiction.
Health officials note that opioid prescriptions have declined 28 percent in the past three years, which they attribute to a multi-state database that allows doctors to more thoroughly research a patient’s prescription history.
Doctors wrote about 546,000 prescriptions for Schedule II opioids, such as OxyContin, in the final quarter of last year. That was 35 percent decline compared to the first three months of 2015.
The latest state report also looked at overdose deaths by community, from 2013 to 2017, the most recent data available.
Some communities saw declines in the number of fatal overdoses during the five-year period, while others have seen increases.
For example, Lawrence reported 145 opioid deaths over the five-year period, including 37 in 2017, a slight decline from the previous year.
In Salem, the number of deaths has edged up slightly every year to 21 in 2017.
Gloucester has also seen slightly increasing numbers of opioid deaths, from a half-dozen in 2013 to 16 in 2017.
In Peabody, the number of opioid related deaths doubled from 2016 to 2017, from 11 to 21. Overall, the city reported 71 deaths during the five-year period.
State officials say data for specific cities and towns are not yet available for last year. And the fatalities were recorded by decedents' hometown, not the geographic location where they died.
Phil Lahey, who oversees the Merrimack Valley Prevention and Substance Abuse Project, said the declining numbers of deaths statewide is encouraging but it doesn't mean more people are getting clean.
"My concern with these kinds of reports is that they give people a false sense of security," he said. "People might think things are getting better, but they're really not."
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for The Salem News and its sister newspapers and websites. Email him at email@example.com.