BOSTON, (SHNS) – Elected, municipal, and faith leaders spent Tuesday commemorating those who lost their lives due to an overdose as part of International Overdose Awareness Day and discussing policy initiatives that could help prevent future deaths.
The day comes after nearly 18 months into a pandemic that has strained public health services and forced more people to stay at home in often isolating situations. Much of the day was marked by events across the state including one at Boston City Hall where city and faith leaders prayed for those affected by substance use.
A provision in the fiscal 2022 budget directs state officials to recognize the day each year with a proclamation from the governor and this year, state bridges, transit hubs, and local buildings plan to light up purple to remember those lost to overdoses. Boston Acting Mayor Kim Janey said City Hall will also light up purple Tuesday evening in honor of the day.
“The convergence of the opioid epidemic with the COVID-19 pandemic has heightened the urgency for preventing overdoses and promoting recovery in Boston,” Janey said at an event inside City Hall. “The pandemic heightened overdose risk by disrupting public health and social services and increasing social isolation.”
Between 1999 and 2019, the opioid overdose crisis claimed nearly 500,000 lives in the U.S., according to the state, and each day an average of 136 Americans die from an overdose on prescription pain medication, heroin, or fentanyl.
Opioid-related deaths rose by five percent in Massachusetts in 2020 compared to 2019, with Black non-Hispanic males making up the largest increase, according to data released in May by the Department of Public Health. The increase in deaths came during the COVID-19 outbreak when health care workers and social services faced challenges in providing care.
State health officials reported 2,104 confirmed and estimated opioid deaths in 2020, 102 more than the previous year and just over the previous high of 2,102 in 2016. The confirmed opioid-related overdose death rate for Black non-Hispanic males increased from 32 to 55 percent per 100,000 people, the largest increase of any ethnic or racial group for that year.
Preliminary Department of Public Health data found that 1,038 people died of opioid overdoses in the first half of 2021, a roughly 5 percent decrease from this time last year.
Mental Health, Substance Use, and Recovery Committee House Chair Adrian Madaro said he would like the Legislature to “do something” to help prevent overdose deaths, adding that it has been a few years since “we’ve tackled this issue and I think it’s due time.”
“We’ve only seen that these issues have actually been exacerbated by the pandemic,” the East Boston Democrat told the News Service. “This is not an issue that is going away. It may have been kind of outshined by the pandemic, which kind of took all the headlines, right, but this is very much still an epidemic raging within the pandemic that needs to be tackled.”