BOSTON (WWLP/SHNS) – Opioid deaths increased by 5 percent in 2020 and according to state health officials, the highest rate was among African-American men.

Data released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health Wednesday showed there were 2,104 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in 2020 compared to 2019.  This is the first increase in annual opioid-related deaths in the state in three years and coincides with the extraordinary public health challenges stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The confirmed opioid-related overdose death rate increased among black men the most, by 69 percent, from 32.6 to 55.1 per 100,000 people. This is the highest increase of any ethnic or racial group in 2020, according to the DPH.

Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders urged people to “never give up hope” and double down on commitments to ending the opioid epidemic.

“If I put this in a national context, preliminary CDC numbers point to an even higher surge across the country, 29 percent,” Sudders said in pre-recorded remarks aired at a virtual event Monday. “The pandemic and isolation, stress, and anxiety over the past 15 months have created a shadow of despair for so many.”

The state recorded 2,002 opioid deaths in 2019 and 2,102 in 2016. Sudders said officials in state government must “lean in together collectively with purpose, unity” in an effort to help people.

“Throughout the pandemic, we in state government, listening to many in this virtual room and elsewhere, we’ve reduced every barrier possible while maintaining that commitment to safety and quality,” the secretary said. “When we stop the stigma, we support people experiencing addiction, and their recovery.”

Sudders’ remarks were featured at the outset of an event hosted by RIZE Massachusetts and the Kraft Center for Community Health at Massachusetts General Hospital on innovations in addiction treatment and harm reductions. RIZE President Julie Burns said advocates and state officials should support harm reduction and addiction treatment services.

Harm reduction is a set of strategies focused on reducing negative outcomes associated with drug use. That could include drug consumption rooms, syringe programs, drug checking, and overdose prevention services.

“The evidence shows that harm reduction works,” Burns said. “Yet, a historical lack of funding and ideological barriers has blocked broad implementation of these necessary interventions. We seek to change that.”