This is only the beginning.
As the state continues to deal with the crisis of opioid addiction, a generation is being plagued by death from overdoses just as there have been changes in the Massachusetts Legislature and among local community coalitions to curb the increase of those overdoses and help those desperate to get clean.
The figures are disturbing: 865 people between 2000 -2015 have been confirmed as unintentional deaths related to opioids in Plymouth County, according to a recent report and statistics released by the state [Department of Public Health, Office of Data Management and Outcomes Assessment for January 2016].
In 2014, State Police responded to 75 suspected fatal overdoses in the county, according to a press release with recent data provided by investigating State Police assigned to the District Attorney’s office. In Hanson there were 37 overdoses and three deaths in 2015, and another five overdoses with one death so far this year. Whitman had 49 overdoses in 2015 with seven deaths and another 13 overdoses and two deaths between Jan. 1 and April 28 this year.
First responders, such as local Hanson Fire Department EMS Coordinator Lt. Keith Wilson, spoke with the Express about the crisis of addiction that has swept its way to every corner of the state — for addiction is not just an urban problem.
“This is a statewide problem,” said Wilson. “It’s not just the heroin junkie in the alley … there are no social backgrounds that are excluded.”
The rate of unintentional overdose deaths are based on the last five years, in which many confirmed heroin overdose victims also had tested positive for Fentanyl in autopsy results, according to Massachusetts Department of Public Health data. Whitman and Hanson police are trained to carry nasal NARCAN. Most town emergency services have a protocol if a patient is given NARCAN after overdosing they must be transported to the hospital, said Hanson Fire Chief Jerry Thompson.
Agencies often help each other.
Whitman EMS, for example, received a 911 emergency call last week for a person reporting someone who appeared to be overdosing in their car. A Massachusetts state trooper was nearby and heard the call. He arrived and administered a nasal form of NARCAN on the scene giving enough time for Whitman EMS to arrive and transport to the hospital. In this case he was revived, Whitman Police Chief Scott Benton said.
“If you are a parent you can’t put money on how many times you would save your child and be able to hug them … you want them alive,” Benton said.
The call for an overdose usually is phoned in — with a sense of frantic helplessness in their voices — by a parent or the person who has found the victim. Officers and first responders know what they are dealing with, and time is of the essence.
Although officers as first responders are trained in nasal NARCAN the surge of Fentanyl being cut into heroin is creating a lethal form of the drug with it divesting NARCAN of its typically fast-paced reversal rate.
NARCAN (Naloxone Hydrochloride) is an opioid antagonist. The administration reverses the effects of narcotics such as morphine and heroin, which depress the central nervous and respiratory system.
In mid-March, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Opioid Abuse Law, which some say is a step in the right direction toward helping addicts, and their loved ones. Under the new law, a patient must remain in the hospital for treatment after NARCAN is administered, although some find ways around the assistance they need and addiction takes hold once again.
“Today, the Commonwealth stands in solidarity to fight the opioid and heroin epidemic that continues to plague our state and burden countless families and individuals,” Baker said at the signing. “While there is still much work to be done, our administration is thankful for the legislature’s effort to pass this bill and looks forward to working with the Attorney General and our mayors to bend the trend and support those who have fallen victim to this horrific public health epidemic.”
Most addicts reach the point where they either know they need help or they are doing drugs to die. It is a vicious cycle, officials say, and recovery is a hard road.
“It is not going away. We (as law enforcement) have to embrace this. The state has finally made changes… we are making strides within the arena of rehabilitation and they are recognizing that. It is an epidemic,” said Benton.
He also emphasizes that many addicts were treated for legitimate injuries or surgery, given pain pills and then could not get off them. The manufacturer knew how addictive Oxycodone was, according to Benton.
“But now through the vicious cycle with these coalitions we are learning there are many players. It is an ‘all-in approach’ from the doctors, clergy and clinicians this is not an instance of something just happening overnight, It will take years and millions of dollars to undo what has happened,” he said.
On April 11 community leaders and parents gathered at WHRHS to hear guest speaker Kathi Sullivan speak to an audience that wants to make a difference in the grip of drug and alcohol abuse in our community and how easily available these things are to their children.
That very same night, Whitman police and fire had calls for two overdoses on their afternoon shift of 4 p.m. to midnight — and two overdoses at midnight. Two more overdoses were reported on the April 13 one was a repeat person from the 11th. One of the overdoses resulted in the death of a 27-year-old male, Benton said.
Sullivan knows too well the tragedy of losing a child. Her daughter Taylor Meyer died in a shallow swamp after a night of binge drinking, found three days after she wandered off from friends.
Whitman Hanson WILL, which co-sponsored Sullivan’s talk, brings a heightened awareness of the opioid and substance abuse for parents, students and community leaders. In a panel discussion following Sullivan’s talk, some found hope and answers as others struggled privately with an addiction that takes away all sense of “behind closed doors” secrecy as we have learned this approach is not helping addicts or their families.
Despite higher overdose rates among men in recently released data there is no discrimination, Benton said.
“The epidemic is one of public safety and health. It requires our empathy these people are addicted — they don’t want to be addicted,” Benton said. “As a parent what would you give to hug your kid again? When we hear comments on repeat offenders — that we shouldn’t keep responding to the same addicts overdosing) it doesn’t matter if we save the person 10, 20 or 1,000 times.”
His answer to naysayers who say “just let them die, we are wasting time and resources on people who want to do drugs,” is direct and heart-felt.
“No, they don’t want to die,” Benton said. “They don’t want to be addicted. We need to show compassion and empathy. It can be frustrating. The odds are we may not make it in time. The stigma of letting that person die doesn’t belong here.”
Whitman is part of the WEB Task Force and has recently become part of the East Bridgewater Hope (EB Hope) survive. Benton praised the drop-in center as ‘angels,’ former addicts who can relate and assist to talk with those struggling to break free of addiction.
“They know what it is like because they have been there with collaborative efforts to educate and learn from addiction while offering services to addicts and their families,” he said. “These are just a few of the pre-emptive changes that will join law enforcement and community members who will all be affected in different forms through this crisis. “
Several local groups working together to aid those in crisis are the Abuse task force for Plymouth County and the Brockton’s Mayors Opioid abuse coalition. Whitman Police Lt. Dan Connolly attends the meetings regularly as a liaison and instructs officers on administering NARCAN.
The data for Massachusetts’ deaths from overdoses is evidence that opioids and Fentanyl-related deaths are still on an incline. The increase in overdose is suspected to be caused by the cutting of Fentanyl creating a purification of the heroin to over 90 percent.
“As first responders we understand the problem and we want to work with other public safety agencies to assist with the growing problem of narcotics addiction in our state and community,” Wilson said.
Throughout the area, in playgrounds and along the roadside, there are random improper disposal of hypodermic needles, which is a health danger to others, Wilson said.
A conference, “Diversion Trends/Methods and Investigating Opiate Overdoses” was held Friday, April 29 with a two-part educational series on law enforcement attended by both Hanson and Whitman officers.
“Everyone knows someone struggling with opiate addiction and there is no telling where the bottom of this crisis is,” Plymouth County District Attorney Timothy Cruz has stated. “This training is about law enforcement coming together to share information and best practices on how to proceed with investigations into fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Productive investigations lead to successful prosecutions of those who are peddling these deadly poisons into our communities.”
Plymouth County Sheriff McDonald Jr. said, “By identifying what measures have been effective, and replicating these successes in other communities, we stand a better chance of preventing deaths, or more directly, saving lives.”
Herion addicts need access to treatment and recovery, but those responsible for distributing lethal drugs like heroin and Fentanyl to the citizens of Massachusetts need to be held accountable for their actions, advocates DEA Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Ferguson.
“In response to the ongoing opioid epidemic, DEA and its federal, state and local partners are committed to bringing to justice those that distribute this poison,” Ferguson said.
“The elevated number of fatal overdoses in Plymouth County unfortunately reflects the numbers being reported around the state and country,” Cruz said. “Opioids are causing tragedies everyday within our communities and everyone knows someone affected by this epidemic. Law enforcement will continue to work at combatting the issue on all levels in 2016.”