Heroin overdoses and deaths in Massachusetts surged last month after a decline over the summer, a sign that the wave of opioid addiction is overwhelming some efforts to curb the crisis.
Ten months after then-governor Deval Patrick declared a public health emergency, State Police recorded 114 suspected opioid fatalities in December, nearly double the 60 that were tallied in November.
The authorities believe one reason for the sharp increase is a return of heroin that is mixed with potentially deadly additives to produce an explosive high. Early last year, heroin tainted with fentanyl — an opioid used in end-of-life care that is up to 100 times stronger than morphine — was blamed for a spike in overdoses that took hundreds of lives in Massachusetts in only a few months.
Another reason could be that tighter restrictions on prescription opioids are pushing more buyers to gamble with heroin, which generally is cheaper and more accessible, medical officials said.
Whatever is driving the surge, its toll has stunned workers in addiction treatment and prevention.
“The month of December was like nothing I have ever seen,” said Joanne Peterson, executive director of Learn to Cope, a support organization for families afflicted by drug abuse. “It’s like a live horror movie, like there’s this monster plucking people away from their families. Not only do you hear about one a day, you hear about several a day.”
Monday brought a new reminder of the lethal trend, when two women were found dead in Lowell of suspected heroin overdoses.
Earlier, police and health care workers were startled by a string of overdoses during the holidays. Among the victims was Keith Cordaro, a 26-year-old Brockton man who overdosed Dec. 23 in a bedroom in his grandmother’s house.
Like many other heroin users, Cordaro had been in and out of treatment facilities, spent time in jail, and stolen repeatedly from his family, his mother said. But Cordaro enjoyed enough sober time that his mother retained hope he would beat addiction.
“He was a good guy when he wasn’t near this stuff,” said Terri Cordaro, sobbing as she visited the home of Christine Hedding, a Brockton woman who lost her 24-year-old daughter, Kerri, to fentanyl-laced heroin in February. “Everything spiraled out of control so fast,” Cordaro said.
In Westminster, Gwen Phelps told a similar story of struggle, frustration, and tragedy. She took her son Jacob off life support Dec. 10, the day after the 24-year-old had overdosed in a Fitchburg pizza shop.
“We’re an average, middle-class, little-town family,” Phelps said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would happen.”