By Haven Orecchio-Egresitz, The Berkshire Eagle

While opioid-related deaths in the state have declined for two consecutive years, drug abuse is still devastating for families in Berkshire County, addiction specialists warn.

Opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts fell by 4% – or 82 people – in 2018, according to a report from the Department of Public Health released Wednesday. There was a 2% decline between 2016 and 2017, when the epidemic was at its peak.

Still, fentanyl, a dangerous synthetic opioid that, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, is 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine, was found in nine of the 10 deaths last year and is in full swing in the state, according to the report.

"A large number of treatments for many of our clients, particularly those requiring drug treatment and those of our residences, consist of urine tests," said Megan Wroldson of the Brien Center. "For those who test positive for drug use, they are often positive for fentanyl."

According to the DPH report, 89% of the 1,445 deaths for which toxicological screening was available were confirmed by opioid overdose in Massachusetts in 2018. Of the 1,445 deaths for which toxicological screening was available, 89% had got a positive result.

The figures provided for the third quarter of the year show that cocaine is present in 48% of screens and heroin in 34%, according to the DPH.

"Cocaine is on the rise," Wroldson said of opioid-related deaths. "It was also heroin, but [fentanyl] is also mixed with cocaine ".

Nowadays, people have to expect to be exposed to fentanyl with any illegal drug they consume, because most drugs can contain the substance, she said. .

About 95% of the urine tests at the Brien Center on people who report having used heroin are fentanyl positive, said Jennifer Michaels, Medical Director of the Brien Center.

"Sometimes there is no heroin in heroin," said Michaels. "Some are surprised, but unfortunately it does not create enough concern for people to change their use."

Governor Charlie Baker's fiscal year 2020 budget, tabled last month, includes $ 266 million to fund opioid treatment and services. The governor also proposed to spend $ 5 million for a regional task force on the ban on fentanyl in order to limit the spread of the substance.

Although the mortality rate is significantly higher than it was before starting to climb at the beginning of the decade, Michaels and Wendy Penner, of the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition, found that the numbers for the first half of the decade were not the same. All of the state in 2018 is a sign that addiction interventions and treatment programs are working and must continue.

"I am excited about any decrease in the number," said Michaels. "In our state, in many ways, our government has created interventions that have helped us cope with this epidemic."

But that does not mean the job is done.

Overdoses related to opioids account for nearly 40% of all deaths among adults aged 25 to 34, and recovery is uneven across demographic groups. According to the report, the number of opioid-related deaths among black men across the state has increased from 2014 to 2017.

Penner, director of prevention and wellness at NBCC, also noted that the numbers do not include deaths from hepatitis C or deaths from other diseases to which people may have been exposed through drug use.

"It's great to see a decrease in these numbers," but the last thing the community needs is complacency, she said. "There are still many people in our community whose lives are devastated by drug use."

"In a small community, what I consider to be Berkshire County, it's important to keep hope," said Wroldson. "But every death has an impact on a family, a neighborhood, and a community, so I think we're going to manage the effects of death that we've had in recent years for a long time."

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington said reducing deaths was evidence that "harm-reduction strategies", such as the use of anti-overdose drugs, were saving lives .

"But we must remain vigilant in treating opioid abuse as a public health problem," Harrington said in a statement. "Families in Berkshire County have been devastated by the epidemic of opioids, which is why, to promote a healthy community, I am in favor of extending the training to the use of naloxone. "

State House News Service contributed to this report.

You can reach Haven Orecchio-Egresitz at, @HavenEagle on Twitter and at 413-770-6977.

If you want to leave a comment (or tip or question) about this story to the editor, do not hesitate
Send us an email. We also welcome letters to the publisher for publication; you can do it in
fill out our letters and send them to the press room.