BOSTON (AP) — While there was a slight increase in the overall number of confirmed and suspected opioid-related drug overdose deaths in Massachusetts in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic, overdose deaths among Black men soared by almost 70%, state health officials said Wednesday.
There were 2,104 confirmed and suspected opioid-related overdose deaths in the state last year, a 5% increase over the prior year, according to a report from the Department of Public Health.
Among Black non-Hispanic males, the confirmed opioid-related overdose death rate increased 69%, from 32.6 to 55.1 per 100,000 people, the highest increase of any ethnic or racial group in 2020.
“The disparities in overdose trends among Black men underscore the need to continue our public health-centered, data-driven approach to the opioid epidemic that is disproportionately impacting high-risk, high-need priority populations,” Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel said.
The latest state data was released as community groups in Boston planned to march to the State House on Wednesday evening to voice concerns about the intersection of Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the area of the city sometimes called “Methadone Mile” that's long been an epicenter for the opioid epidemic.
The South End–Roxbury Community Partnership said residents and businesses are frustrated that illegal drug use, crime and other issues continue to plague the area, despite the city's promises and initiatives over the years.
The organization said it has pleaded with city and state leaders through emails, petitions, community meetings and more to come up with a public safety plan to address widespread homelessness, substance abuse and mental health issues.
“These conditions have become increasingly uncomfortable, unmanageable, and unsafe, and yet our elected officials failed to create a comprehensive safety plan,” the partnership said in a statement. “We continue to ask our elected officials to be held accountable."
Marty Martinez, who heads the city's health and human services office, said city officials are currently reviewing a 2019 plan to address drug addiction and homelessness in the area.
He said the city has also stepped up efforts to tamp down on crime after a recent rise in the area, and has reopened its “comfort station" with new rules meant to increase safety. The fenced-in area is staffed by medical and outreach workers and offers public bathrooms and access to addiction treatment and other services.
“We absolutely hear the concerns that residents raise and that's why we continue to do the work that we're trying to do," Martinez said.
Battling opioid use has been complicated by the coronavirus pandemic in states across the country, as overdose deaths have risen in Rhode Island, Virginia and elsewhere.
But Massachusetts was among the states with the smallest increases in all drug overdose deaths last year, state health officials said Wednesday.
“Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic have underscored the importance of supporting disproportionately impacted communities, and as we address both issues, our administration has continued to focus on equity as a core component of our response,” Republican Gov. Charlie Baker said in a statement.
The 2,104 confirmed and suspected opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 was higher than the record 2,102 confirmed in 2016, health officials said. Records have been kept since 2000.
Fentanyl continues to be the main driver of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts, health officials said. Fentanyl was present in 92% of overdose deaths where a toxicology report was available in 2020, according to department data.