BOSTON (SHNS) – Surrounded by more than 22,000 purple flags on Boston Common representing the lives of Bay Staters lost to the opioid epidemic in the last decade, Kar-Kate Parenteau wore a beaming photo of her husband Marc, who died of an accidental fentanyl overdose in 2017.
In the photo hanging from her lanyard, Marc’s arms are spread wide against the backdrop of the ocean off Martha’s Vineyard. Parenteau, who was joined Thursday by loved ones wearing the same image, said seeing Marc’s smile makes her happy.
But just by looking at him, one would never know that Marc, whom Parenteau described as outgoing and a big sports fan, was struggling with substance use and addiction. He died at age 30.
“He was definitely more than his addiction,” Parenteau told the News Service, as she invoked the epicenter of Boston’s opioid crisis around Massachusetts Avenue and Melnea Cass Boulevard. “When people think of someone that is struggling with substance use, they have a certain image, and a lot of times they may think Mass. and Cass.”
She added, “But in reality, it’s the people around you that you just don’t know — it affects everyone.”
Gov. Maura Healey, who planted multiple flags in the somber display, presented Parenteau with a proclamation Thursday morning marking Overdose Awareness Day. It states that misconceptions and stigmas around substance use disorder are hindering people from getting the care they need.
It also outlines how people of color have been disproportionately affected by fatal overdoses and the “criminalization of substance use disorder.” The opioid epidemic keeps causing devastation in communities, according to the proclamation, while also inducing “profound economic strain on individuals and families in health care costs, lost productivity, and criminal justice involvement.”
Family members grieving their loved ones, clinicians, social workers and members of advocacy organizations were among the attendees Thursday who also planted the small flags, with the State House forging the backdrop for the sea of purple.
There were 2,357 confirmed and estimated fatal opioid-related overdoses in Massachusetts last year, a record high that is a 9.1 percent increase from 2016, according to public health data released in June.
DPH Commissioner Robbie Goldstein, who previously called the statistics “devastating” and “tragic,” joined Healey, Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, Health and Human Services Secretary Kate Walsh, and other officials at the Thursday morning event organized by the Bureau of Substance Addiction Services. Deidre Calvert, director of the bureau, was emotional as she delivered opening remarks and asked for a moment of silence.
Healey, struck by the photographs of loved ones lost to overdose deaths, said the awareness day revolved around families, whose “worst possible suffering” can spur officials to pursue new policies.
In her capacity as attorney general, Healey had sued the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma for their role in fueling the national opioid crisis.
“Today is a day where we renew our commitment. Certainly we’re going to do everything we can and make use of every single last dollar that we get from the Sacklers and others who in the most monstrous of ways exploited people around this country, and we’re going to look for new ways, new innovations to help people, people right now, people right around us and among us who are struggling with addiction, who are struggling with anxiety, depression, mental health,” Healey said at the event. “There’s so much we can do as a state, as a nation, to lift one another up, to take care of one another.”
The flags planted on Boston Common help raise awareness of the opioid crisis locally, nationally and globally, Driscoll said. Each flag also symbolizes a brother, son, mother, daughter, friend or human being who meant “a lot” to their communities and the people around them, she said.
“The hard truth is addiction and overdose represent an urgent crisis in our state,” Driscoll said. “It’s one of the reasons we’ve leaned into ensuring that we have adequate resources and opportunities to combat this crisis. … It’s a priority to make sure that we’re doing all we can to support harm reduction efforts, access to treatment, recovery services, long-term supports.”
The fiscal 2024 budget includes $700 million to tackle the opioid epidemic, including investments for low-threshold housing and expanded mobile treatment options. Driscoll said the administration is working to ensure fewer flags need to be planted in Boston next year.
Nearly every Massachusetts family has been affected by the opioid crisis, Congresswoman Lori Trahan said during a separate virtual discussion Thursday in which she touted federal legislation aimed at expanding treatment and education for substance use disorders.
“Far too many families have an empty seat at the table today because they lost a loved one, because their addiction either went undiagnosed or untreated,” Trahan said.
The Boston Common flags, along with resource tables providing information on harm reduction, addiction prevention and recovery resources, will be displayed through Sept. 4, according to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services. People can seek help by calling the Massachusetts Substance Use Helpline at 800-327-5050.
Rep. Kate Donaghue, who said she lost her son to an overdose five years ago, said she honors Brian by sharing his story to raise awareness of the crisis and combat stigma around substance use.
“I tell his story as I work to get help for people struggling with substance use disorder,” Donaghue said at the Boston Common event. “We need to treat the opioid epidemic like the public health crisis that it is and not a moral failing.”
Massachusetts for Overdose Prevention Centers, a statewide coalition with more than 30 organizations, separately recognized International Overdose Awareness Day by elevating its plea for officials to open those facilities, also known as safe consumption sites and safe injection sites.
The coalition supports legislation from Reps. Dylan Fernandes and Marjorie Decker and Sen. Julian Cyr (H 1981 / S 1242) that would create a 10-year pilot for municipalities to launch overdose prevention centers overseen by medical professionals. The bills are awaiting a hearing before the Committee on Mental Health, Substance Use and Recovery.
The idea of safe injection sites has been debated on Beacon Hill before, though it was met with pushback from federal law enforcement officials. In 2018, the Massachusetts Senate considered an opioid addiction prevention bill that would have authorized a pilot program of supervised sites for illegal drug use. The Senate ultimately adopted an amendment to study the idea instead.
“We know that avoidable deaths are happening every day in Massachusetts and across the U.S. We cannot afford to maintain the status quo,” Dana Longobardi, administrative director of public health prevention programs at Fenway Health, a coalition member, said in a statement. “Overdose prevention centers offer an evidenced-based alternative. They are essential in providing a dignified space to keep people who use drugs safe, and, most importantly, alive.”