The number of people who died from opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts fell by 4 percent in 2018 compared to the previous year, the second consecutive year the death rate has declined, state officials said Wednesday while warning the opioid crisis was still far from under control.
A report issued Wednesday by the Department of Public Health also showed that fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, was present in nearly nine of 10 deaths in 2018 in which toxicology reports were complete. The connection of fentanyl to deadly overdoses has been rising steadily for the past five years.
There were 1,617 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in 2018, with another 320 to 394 expected to be added once cause of death is finalized for those cases, the report said. The number of confirmed or probable overdose deaths currently stood at 2,056 for the previous year.
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Fatal overdoses declined 2 percent from 2016 to 2017.
"While we are encouraged to see fewer opioid-related overdose deaths for a second consecutive year and a 35 percent decrease in reported opioid prescriptions since 2015, the opioid epidemic continues to present a very serious challenge that is made more difficult due to the presence of fentanyl," said Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, in a statement.
Fentanyl was present in 89 percent of toxicology screens ordered by the state's chief medical examiner in 2018, the report said. Figures provided for the third quarter of the year showed cocaine present in 48 percent and heroin in 34 percent of the screens.
Massachusetts last year added new mandatory prison sentences for trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil, another synthetic opioid.
Reducing opioid prescriptions has been a focus of state prevention efforts, including a 2016 law that limits first-time opioid prescriptions to a 7-day supply and allows patients to request that pharmacies fill less than the full prescription of a drug.
The Massachusetts Prescription Monitoring Program reported 546,000 Schedule II prescriptions — including such drugs as oxycodone and morphine — in the final three months of 2018.
Though encouraged by the overall decline in deaths, state officials sounded the alarm over statistics from 2017 that showed a 45 percent increase in opioid-related fatalities among non-Hispanic black males.
"The opioid epidemic does not discriminate by race or ethnicity or by geographic region," said Dr. Monica Bharel, the state's public health commissioner. "Individuals and families of every race and in every part of the state have been impacted."