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Lowell Opioid Calls Spike in July Amid Unrelenting Crisis

August 11, 2018

LOWELL -- In the first six months of 2018, the number of opioid-related calls within the city were on the low end of average. Then came July.

“Not only did we go from the very bottom of where the trend is, we skipped going back to the middle and went to the extreme north of it,” said Jon Kelly, director of communications and IT of Trinity Emergency Medical Services, during a presentation to the Lowell Opioid Task Force on Friday.

Last month, Trinity EMS received 99 calls opioid-related calls, 10 more than the next highest month since the company started tracking these numbers in January 2013. Of these, 51 were Priority 1 calls, meaning without treatment, like naloxone, these patients would die, according to Kelly.

This is just over an average of three calls a day. In comparison, the average during the first six months of the year was closer to two calls per day.

January had the year’s lowest number of both total calls, 56, and Priority 1 calls, 28. Besides July, the number of total calls in a single month did not exceed 68.

Despite the spike, the number of overdose-related deaths in Middlesex County is roughly the same as it was last year at this time, according to District Attorney Marian Ryan. As of Aug. 8, 126 people have died of an overdose in the county this year, according to her office. Of these, 30 were in Lowell.

“It’s very fluid. We had a very, very difficult end of June, beginning of July. We had been doing very well until then, then it jumps back up again,” Ryan said. “We seem -- seem -- to have flattened ourselves out again, which is a good thing.”

Lainnie Emond, substance abuse coordinator of the Lowell Health Department, offered a few possible causes for this summer increase. First, even for July, last month was hot.

“One of the things I’ve been hearing -- I haven’t looked into it quiet yet so I can’t say this for certain -- but for individuals who use opioids dehydration could be an added risk factor for an opioid overdose,” she said.

If this is the case, organizations that provide outreach should considering offering bottles of water while providing other aid, Emond said.

Second, Emond believes meth might be becoming more available in the community. Mixing depressors, like opioids, with stimulants, like meth, can create side effects and lead to overdoses, she said.

“According to some members of the local co-op meth is making its way into the area,” she said. “They’ve heard from clients that dealers are giving away little bags for free.”

Unlike past problems in the city with fentanyl-laced cocaine -- a mixture often unknown to the user -- Emond said people using meth, don’t seem to be doing so accidentally.

In recent months, Kelly said he has seen another trend emerge, but what it means is unclear. For years, the number of overdoses was the same on average every day of the week, but in the last three months more overdoses are happening on weekends.

“Friday, Saturday, Sunday are now way more prevalent when overdoses are happening. ... You almost got three times more likely for an overdose on a Sunday versus a Wednesday now,” he said.

For similarly unclear reasons, the number of overdoses in the Acre has increased over the past month when compared to the rest of the city, Kelly said. On average, 15 percent of overdoses in Lowell happen in the Acre, but over the past three months the Acre made up 20 percent of this number.

Anecdotally, organizers attending the Lowell Opioid Task Force on Friday said they have seen the age group affected by opioid addiction expand.

“We’re graduating people in drug court who are close to 70 years old,” said Tewksbury Police Chief Timothy Sheehan.

A fifth of the calls Trinity EMS responded to last month were for patients over 50. On average, male patients are 40-years-old and female patients are 35-years-old. About 72 percent of the patients were men.

Catherine Yu, a infectious disease and HIV physician said people affected by the recent HIV outbreak in Lowell and Lawrence, thought to be caused by needle sharing, typically fit a profile.

“It still tends to be the younger men who have an issue with substance use,” she said.

Trinity EMS, serves 13 communities in northern Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire, including Lowell, Chelmsford and Dracut. On June 28, a first responder made the 3,000th opioid revival in the region since the start of 2013, according to Kelly. In total, the company has revived 2,345 individuals.

At the beginning of the meeting, Ryan presented a map showing overdose deaths by community.

“That represents somebody’s child, somebody’s brother or sister.” she said. “More often than not, (they’re) somebody’s mother or father.”

Follow Elizabeth Dobbins on Twitter @ElizDobbins.

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