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BPHC Reminds Residents About Dangers of Opioids After 7% Increase in Fatal Overdoses in Boston

New state data: 352 people in Boston died of opioid overdose in 2022.

Following the release of preliminary state data for 2022 on opioid-related overdose deaths, the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC) is reminding residents about the dangers of opioid use and its harmful impacts on our communities, as well as the presence of fentanyl in the drug supply.  

New data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health last week noted that 352 people died from opioid overdoses in Boston in 2022, a nearly 7% increase from 2021 (330 total deaths). From 2019 to 2022, Boston experienced a 36% increase in opioid related deaths, more than twice the statewide rate of increase (16%) over the same time period.   

A key factor for this increase is the role of fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, involved in more than 90% of opioid-related deaths in both the state and among Boston residents in 2022. Xylazine, known as “tranq,” an animal tranquilizer has also been increasingly found in the drug supply and increases the risk of overdose through oversedation. 

“This ongoing tragedy requires increasing our focus on overdose prevention throughout our city,” said Dr. Bisola Ojikutu, Commissioner of Public Health and Executive Director of the Boston Public Health Commission. “We must respond by scaling up evidence-based interventions that decrease the harm associated with drug use and keep people alive. We must also address pervasive inequities and ensure that lifesaving prevention, care, and treatment are available to all.”  

The 2022 data show that opioid-related overdoses have disproportionately impacted Black and Latinx individuals in Boston: 30% of all opioid overdose deaths in Boston were among Black individuals and 21% were among Latinx individuals. Opioid overdose deaths among Black individuals in Boston increased by 29% from 2021-2022, and deaths among Latinx individuals increased by 9% from 2021-2022.  

From 2020-2022 combined, the average annual opioid overdose mortality rate for Black and Latinx residents was 66% and 31% higher than white residents, respectively. The rate of overdose death for Black residents from 2020-2022 is a 130% increase from the rate observed from 2017-2019. Data compiled by BPHC in its recent Health of Boston Report show the leading cause of premature deaths among male Black and Latinx residents for 2017 through 2021 combined was accidents, with opioid overdoses accounting for most of these deaths. These data emphasize the need for increased attention to equitable access to harm reduction prevention, and treatment services in Boston. 

BPHC and the City of Boston remain committed to responding to this crisis in collaboration with the state, clinical, and community partners through a public health approach that expands access to lifesaving treatment, harm reduction services, prevention, and recovery support. In addition to providing harm reduction tools like syringes and safe smoking supplies, BPHC’s AHOPE (Access, Harm Reduction, Overdose Prevention and Education) program offers drug testing services to drug users to identify the presence of fentanyl, xylazine, or other substances. Access to treatment services is also available through the PAATHS (Providing Access to Addictions Treatment, Hope and Support) program. To contact PAATHS, please call 1-855-494-4057. Anyone in the City of Boston can call 311 anytime to access treatment services or care.    

Expanding access to Narcan (naloxone) is another critical aspect of the response to overdoses. BPHC distributed nearly 15,000 doses of Narcan to residents and community partners in 2022, and outreach workers reverse up to five overdoses a day. In 2022, Boston EMS responded to 4,245 incidents for patients experiencing narcotic-related illness, 2,181 of whom had been administered Narcan. Not only do these heroic actions save lives, but they also help build all-important relationships with clients to that help engage them and link them to services. Naloxone is available over the counter at pharmacies across Massachusetts. BPHC offers free training on how to respond to overdoses and administer naloxone. 

In 2022, BPHC began funding two day-spaces in Roxbury and Back Bay that serve as safe environments where individuals can get connected to clinical care and services and get meals, basic amenities, and build trust with our providers. As more and more individuals come to Boston for treatment and resources, BPHC and the City support Governor Healey's commitment to increase harm reduction capacity in cities and towns across the Commonwealth.  

BPHC urges the city to remain vigilant for signs of overdose. Common signs of an opioid overdose include slowed breathing, blue lips, and unresponsiveness. If you encounter someone who you believe has overdosed, call 911 immediately, perform rescue breathing, and administer naloxone.

Background on overdose response and resources

The City of Boston has long been a leader in naloxone use and overdose prevention. Boston EMS and the BPHC staff across our Recovery Services and Homeless Service programs regularly administer lifesaving care and reverse up to five opioid overdoses per day. 

BPHC began offering civilian trainings in overdose prevention and naloxone in 2006, offering guidance to drug users, friends and families. BPHC staff trained nearly 3,000 people on how to spot an overdose and administer naloxone last year alone. Boston EMS has expanded their first responder efforts to include “Leave Behind Naloxone” program to combat the rise in opioid overdoses, leaving naloxone on scene with participants after an opioid overdose occurs and has been taken care of. 

BPHC in partnership with the Boston Fire Department conducted 296 home visits in 2022 with the Post Overdose Response Team (PORT) to provide overdose prevention education, distribute Narcan, and link individuals and families to care and services following an overdose in the home.

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