| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – Local public health officials and addiction treatment professionals explained to Springfield city councilors the reasons behind an increase in drug-related deaths in the city at a time when opioid-related deaths state-wide have decreased slightly.
Their answers point to a number of factors, not the least of which are inadequate opportunities for treatment as compared to other parts of the Commonwealth.
According to a recent report released by the Department of Public Health, statewide from 2016-2018 the deaths caused by opioids dropped four percent. In Hampden County there was an increase of 84 percent from 2017-2018 and in Springfield there were 80 deaths alone in 2018, which is about double the number in preceding years.
Helen Caulton Harris, the city’s Health & Human Services Commissioner, told Councilor Jesse Lederman, who called the meeting, “We in the city of Springfield are in a crisis.” She added the neighborhoods that are disproportionately affected include the North End, the South End, Forest Park and Mason Square.
Alison Proctor, program coordinator in the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, said of the many reasons for drugs in the city, geography plays a major role. Being at the intersection of Interstates 90 and 91 as well as being close to state borders have contributed to Springfield’s problem.
“[The location] serves as a gateway for a lot of drug trafficking,” she said.
Martha Lyman, research director in the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department, agreed. “We are a main route and that brings a lot of poison into our community.”
While opioids are of great concerns, other drugs are factors in overdoses. According to the DPH report, “Among the 1,445 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018 where a toxicology screen was also available, 1,292 of them (89 percent) had a positive screen result for fentanyl. In the third quarter of 2018, heroin or likely heroin was present in approximately 34 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths that had a toxicology screen. Cocaine was present in approximately 48 percent of these deaths and benzodiazepines were present in approximately 38 percent. In the first quarter of 2014, amphetamines were present in 4 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths that had a toxicology screen. The presence of amphetamines has been increasing since 2017 to approximately 12 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in the third quarter of 2018. Since 2014, the rate of heroin or likely heroin present in opioid-related overdose deaths has been decreasing while the presence of fentanyl and cocaine is still trending upward.”
Lyman has been also working with public health officials in Berkshire and Franklin counties and said, “This is a phenomena throughout Western Massachusetts.”
Dr. Peter Friedmann, chief research officer for Baystate Health, said, “It’s important and certainly tragic for the people involved.”
He said he is “very heartened” that statistics will be better in 2019. He believes public health workers have to reach out to the people who are not ready for treatment by teaching them to inject safely and making Narcan, the drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, available to them and their families.
He cited a program in Plymouth County that actively sought out addicts to see if they would accept treatment as one part of the strategy.
Harris asserted, “We’re not going to arrest our way out of this.”
She added the city needs an “integrated partnership” between the public health organizations, the Commonwealth and law enforcement to increase greater communication.
Getting statistics in real time from the Commonwealth would be helpful, several people said. “Whatever we’re doing at this point, we don’t know if it’s working,” she added.
Harris said there has been no progress in receiving funding for treatment beds in the area. The Commonwealth maintains Springfield has enough, she added.
Right now the treatment beds established by Sheriff Nick Cocchi are being legally contested and Lyman said, “Don’t let them shut down the Section 35 treatment facilities … it’s what we have in Western Massachusetts.”
Cocchi has boosted the number of treatment beds available under Section 35 locally.
Section 35 “permits the courts to involuntarily commit someone who has an alcohol or substance use disorder and there is a likelihood of serious harm as a result of his/her alcohol or substance use. Such a commitment shall be for the purpose of inpatient care of a person with an alcohol or substance use disorder in a facility,” according to the law.
Resources for women fighting addiction here are “always scant,” Lyman said.
Harris urged the council to appeal to the legislative delegation for more funding for programs.