Opiates Taking Heavy Toll on Cape

A rash of drug overdoses has plagued Cape Cod since the beginning of the year and sent local officials and outreach workers scrambling to respond to the surge in heroin and other opiate use.

Yarmouth has recorded 13 overdoses since Jan. 1, including two fatalities, police said. The Barnstable villages of Centerville, Osterville, and Marstons Mills have counted nine overdoses, including one death. And Falmouth has been hit with six overdoses, including two fatalities, authorities said.

The alarming rise in overdoses does not appear to be unique to Cape Cod, as community after community in Massachusetts, Vermont, and other states has reported a spike in opiate abuse.

But Cape Cod is an example of a place afflicted by what many police and health officials are calling a crisis that is rapidly cutting across racial, income, and geographic lines.

It is a crisis in which drug users, many in their teens and 20s, are turning to heroin as a much cheaper alternative to once-popular prescription opiates such as OxyContin and Percocet, authorities said.

“It’s not unique to any specific area of the state,” said Hilary Jacobs, director of the Bureau of Substance Abuse Services for the state Department of Public Health. “It’s coming from all over.”

Fire Chief Michael Winn, who commands the station that serves Centerville, Osterville, and Marstons Mills, said the overdose problem has even reached the front door of the firehouse, where at least one victim, not breathing and slumped in the front seat, was driven by a friend on Jan. 30.

Firefighters attended to that victim, who survived. At the time, the ambulance was unavailable because it had been dispatched to an overdose in another part of town, Winn said.

“It’s everywhere,” the chief said. “The thing is, good people are getting sick and dying from it.”

Pinpointing a reason for the recent spike is difficult, said authorities, but one possibility is that heroin has been mixed with fentanyl, a dangerously potent opiate generally used as a painkiller for end-of-life cancer patients.

Lab tests from Cape Cod overdoses have yet to detect fentanyl, officials said, but its presence in heroin bought on the streets has been linked to fatalities in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and other states. The sense among public safety officials and outreach workers is that fentanyl is on its way to Cape Cod, if not already there.

In Falmouth, Detective Captain Brian Reid said he suspects that fentanyl has arrived. “The evidence indicates that, absolutely,” Reid said.

Max Sandusky, prevention and screening director for the AIDS Support Group of Cape Cod, echoed that belief.

“We’ve had reports of fentanyl from about a handful of users through our outreach; we don’t know where it’s coming from,” said Sandusky, whose group is part of a pilot program to train the public in use of naloxone, an opioid widely known by the trademark name Narcan that can quickly reverse life-threatening effects of overdoses.