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Opioid deaths rising statewide; Cape has seen increases since 2017

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Haley Lawrence
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Opioid overdose deaths in Barnstable County have risen slightly each year since 2017, a trend similar to what’s happening statewide, where recent increases have nearly returned the number to the 2016 high of 2,110.

Although the phenomenon predates the pandemic, the past two years have been challenging in many ways, said Kate Lena, substance-use prevention program manager for Barnstable County.

“I would have expected a bigger spike with all the instability in the world right now, you know — kind of collectively and also on an individual level,” she said. “We know that most of us have been struggling in some way over the past two years.”

Lena said overdose deaths can rise after a user’s supply is disrupted by a big drug bust or other event, such as the pandemic shutdown. When users turn to an unknown source, they may get drugs that are mixed with highly lethal fentanyl.

Fentanyl is involved in the vast majority of opioid-related deaths in Massachusetts — 92 percent of cases in the first half of this year, according to state data.

It even appears in non-opioid drugs, such as cocaine, she said.

Recently released statewide data show opioid-related deaths have risen 1 percent in the first nine months of this year, compared to the same period last year.

County-level data show opioid related deaths rose in 2020 in Barnstable, Plymouth, and Dukes Counties, but declined in Bristol and Nantucket Counties. Numbers for the Islands are in the single digits.

Lena, a harm-reduction advocate, says the community needs to pay attention not only to deaths, but also to the lives that are saved, and how.

“It's not really helpful just to look at the deaths,” she said. “We really want to know how many people are overdosing and not passing away, and understand a little bit better about who's saving those individuals. Why are they not dying, and how can we save more people?”

One of the biggest ways, she said, is with Narcan, or its generic, naloxone, an overdose reversal drug. It saves the lives of people who are actively using — a group Lena said tends to get forgotten in discussions of prevention and recovery.

Cape Cod could see some good news this year, because medical emergencies related to opioids are down for the first half of 2021, she said.

“That doesn't necessarily mean the deaths are going to be lower, but it does tell us that there could be less opioid-related incidents in Barnstable County,” she said.

It’s important to remember that behind each number is a person, she said. “We don’t want to see anyone dying.”