[Story Developing] More than 1,500 people in Massachusetts died of opioid overdoses in the first nine months of 2020, a 2% increase over the same period last year.

The 1,517 confirmed and estimated opioid-related deaths through September is up from the 1,485 recorded during the first nine months of 2019, according to data presented at a Public Health Council meeting Wednesday.

Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said the rate of overdose deaths has stabilized since a 2016 peak, despite an increase in the presence of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Fentanyl, which Bharel called "the really deadly ingredient that we've seen drive the opioid deaths in this current epidemic," showed up in 93% of toxicology screens for overdose deaths in the first six months of this year.

Bharel said the data showed an increase between 2018 and 2019 in overdose death rates for Black women and for Black and Hispanic men.

"The opioid epidemic continues to impact too many families and vulnerable populations, who have had to contend with the added fears and stress of the pandemic," Bharel said.

She said the state has "not let up on our efforts to address the opioid epidemic," taking steps aimed at expanding access to telehealth, reducing barriers to treatment and broadening distribution of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

~ Katie Lannan/SHNS

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