Worcester officials say even though they’re implementing some of the best practices available to help curb fatal opioid overdoses, the crisis is worsening in the city.
From 2018 to 2022, opioid-related deaths increased by about 18%, which was a few percentage points higher than the state average. Last year, from January to September, preliminary data shows fatalities rose another 11% compared to the same time period the year before. Only Boston, triple Worcester’s size, has recorded higher counts of opioid mortality in recent years.
During a Worcester City Council meeting Tuesday night, Health and Human Services Commissioner Matilde Castiel said the city has been distributing the opioid overdose-reversal drug Narcan around communities. A state-funded van operated by Spectrum Health Services Inc. also drives to different areas of the city, providing more than 100 people a day with free medication to treat their dependence on opioids. And Worcester’s ambulance services have begun carrying Suboxone, a medication used to treat opiate dependence.
“In spite of all that, there’s a lot of issues,” Castiel told councilors. “Our numbers [for fatal overdoses] are extremely high.”
She said part of the problem is stigma around addiction that prevents people from accessing the care they need. For example, hospitals don’t always treat addiction as an illness and instead refer people to other places they can receive help. As a result, research shows people can be at increased risk of fatal overdose within days or weeks after a hospital visit.
In order to slow down the local opioid crisis, Castiel said the city must continue expanding access to overdose revival and addiction recovery medication and enhance public awareness campaigns on safe opioid use. She said ensuring people have housing is also critical.
“Nobody is going to recover without a roof over their heads,” she said.
In response to Castiel’s suggestions, Councilor Etel Haxhiaj asked that the city consider establishing overdose prevention facilities where medical professionals monitor people as they use drugs to ensure they don’t fatally overdose. Haxhiaj argued that two such centers in New York City have saved lives and helped address addiction.
Massachusetts state and federal laws currently prohibit much of what goes on in overdose prevention centers. In order for them to open in the commonwealth, the state would have to provide liability protections to the clinicians staffing the facilities.
During Tuesday’s meeting, Councilor George Russell said he had reservations about the facilities. He asked city officials to review potential alternatives to opening them.
“I'm also looking … to see what kind of impact [the centers have] not only on the folks that have an addiction problem, but on other members of the community and other surrounding things like that,” Russell said. “Community's about everybody, including those who have the addiction, in my opinion. And I want this to be a whole big picture to look at.”
Castiel responded that the centers could be another useful tool to address the crisis. In addition to serving as supervised injection sites, she noted the facilities give people access to nurses, doctors and housing specialists.
“They provide a place for people to be,” Castiel said. “They're talking to people. They develop relationships, and then they're able to hopefully get into treatment.”