Massachusetts Opioid Overdose Deaths Increase Amid COVID-19 Pandemic

  • Written by:

    Bedrock Recovery Center

  • Dr. Langdon M.D.
    Medically reviewed by:

    Kimberly Langdon M.D.

Opioid Overdose During COVID

According to the Massachusetts Department of Health, opioid overdose deaths increased by five percent last year—from 2,002 in 2019 to 2,104 opioid-involved deaths in 2020.

This just barely surpasses the previous peak of 2,102 opioid overdose deaths that occurred in the Bay State in 2016.

According to public health experts, and addiction treatment specialists, the drivers behind this increase are complex. Social and economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, are believed to have played a notable role.

How Has COVID-19 Affected The Opioid Epidemic In Massachusetts?

When COVID-19 hit, the nation was unprepared. After a slight drop in U.S. overdose deaths from 2018 to 2019, last year saw the deadliest year for fatal drug overdoses on record.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic affected the lives of people with substance use disorders, and their families in a number of ways.

Some of these ways include:

  • access to medication-assisted treatment and other treatment services
  • access to harm-reduction services (e.g. needle exchange programs)
  • drug trafficking and drug supply
  • access to social support and support groups
  • employment status
  • increased rates of stress, anxiety, and suicidal ideation
  • caregiving responsibilities
  • added burden on essential workers

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people have been cut off from not only treatment, but their support system: recovery mentors, friends, family members, churches, classmates.

Addiction thrives in isolation. Furthermore, factors such as unemployment, unsafe working conditions, and financial precarity can also affect mental health and substance use.

Opioids: What They Are And What Makes Them Deadly

Opioid drugs, also known as opioid-analgesics or narcotics, slow down the body’s central nervous system, which controls activity in the brain and can affect vital bodily functions. 

The use of opioid drugs, particularly in high doses, can cause:

  • sedation
  • slowed heart rate
  • reduced blood pressure
  • slowed or stopped breathing

Different types of opioids (also known as opiates) are more potent, or powerful, than others. Some are natural, partially synthetic, or fully synthetic.

Depending on the type, opioids can be acquired through a variety of channels—on the street, and some by prescription.

Opioid Overdoses Driven By Illicit Fentanyl

In recent years, illicitly manufactured fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has been the primary driver of opioid overdose deaths, along with illicit stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine.

For context, fentanyl is about 50 times more potent than heroin. And unfortunately, this is often mixed with street heroin sold on the street—unbeknownst to the person buying.

Polysubstance use—that is, the use of multiple drugs—is also a risk factor for drug overdose. This includes the use of opioids with alcohol, prescription sedatives, and other illicit drugs.

How The Opioid Epidemic Affects Certain Populations In Massachusetts

Opioid overdose data from the Massachusetts Department of Health, and broader substance abuse trends, reveal a disproportionate impact of the opioid epidemic on certain populations.

This includes Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), the LGBTQ+ community, rural communities, women, and essential frontline workers.

Overdose Death Rates Soar In Massachusetts’ BIPOC Communities

State data shows that, among non-Hispanic Black males, opioid-related deaths increased 69 percent—the highest increase of any racial or ethnic group in Massachusetts last year.

In recent years, research has shown a sharp rise in rates of opioid use disorder and overdose deaths in Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) communities, including in states like Massachusetts.

Opioid overdose deaths among racial and ethnic groups in 2020:

  • Non-Hispanic Black Americans: 34.8 per 100,000 residents
  • Hispanic Americans: 35.4 per 100,000 residents
  • White Non-Hispanics: 32.3 per 100,000 residents
  • Asian Americans: 3.3 per 100,000 residents

Opioid Abuse And The LGTBQ+ Community

Research shows that the lesbian, gay, transgender, bisexual, and queer (LGBTQ+) community is at heightened risk for drug and alcohol use disorders.

For both teens and adults, finding LGBTQ-inclusive treatment programs and recovery support services in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the U.S. can, unfortunately, be a challenge. 

According to the most recent data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health:

  • About 1.4 million LGBTQ adults misuse prescription opioids and heroin.
  • The top opioid drugs of abuse among LGBTQ adults include fentanyl, heroin, oxycodone, and hydrocodone.

LGBTQ youth and adults in Massachusetts are disproportionately affected by factors that can increase the risk for harmful substance use—including homelessness, discrimination, violence, and family rejection.

Opioid Overdose Deaths Among Women

Opioid deaths increased among women in Massachusetts last year, according to state data. 

And while this increase among women occurred across racial and ethnic groups, last year’s increase was highest among Hispanic and Black women in particular.

Drug Abuse And Essential Workers

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) consistently reported increased rates of stress, substance use, and suicidal ideation—particularly among essential workers and caregivers.

This includes essential workers such as:

  • first responders
  • healthcare workers
  • employees in the public safety sector
  • service workers

During times of stress and grief, drugs and alcohol may often be turned to for relief—as temporary as that relief may be while the effects of those substances last.

Unfortunately, using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism to cope with grief, stress, depression, or loneliness can turn into a serious and potentially life-threatening problem.

What Comes Next: Solutions For Addressing The Crisis

The opioid epidemic and COVID-19 has led to devastating outcomes for Massachusetts residents with addiction and their families.

The Bureau of Substance Addiction Services, for its part, plans to invest $40 million over the next four years into expanding treatment access for BIPOC residents of Massachusetts, to address disparities in overdose trends.

Additional suggested steps for addressing this crisis, according to experts, include:

  • increasing access to drug addiction treatment services
  • enhancing existing drug addiction treatment options in Massachusetts
  • increasing opportunities for gainful employment
  • enhancing awareness of drug addiction and signs of overdose through education
  • increasing access to affordable housing and supportive housing options

Taking a holistic approach to addressing drug addiction, relapse, and overdose is critical, experts argue. Connecting people with treatment is just one piece of the puzzle.

Find Help For Opioid Use Disorder In Massachusetts

At Bedrock Recovery Center, our addiction treatment staff believe in taking a holistic approach to addiction treatment and helping people rebuild happy and fulfilling lives.

To learn more about our Massachusetts drug treatment center, and our available treatment programs for opioid abuse and addiction, chat with us online or call our free helpline today.