It’s Time to Get Real About Drug Overdoses


To the Editor,
When it comes to our society’s struggle to prevent overdose, the losses seem to weigh a whole lot heavier than the victories.
Last week, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health sent out a release detailing one of those rare victories: 2023 marked the first decrease in yearly opioid overdoses since 2019 for the state, some encouraging news for both those who work in the field of overdose prevention and those who might benefit from this work.
In a sobering contrast to this update, last week also brought the news that one person had died and two were hospitalized after apparent drug overdoses in Ipswich and there were calls in Essex as well. These overdoses were most likely due to fentanyl-laced cocaine and were used by people who normally do not use opioids. As far as losses go, it’s hard to find one weightier than the sudden loss of human life.
When something of this stark nature occurs so close to home, it’s only natural that questions will follow.
How did this happen? What if it were me or someone I knew? What can we do about it?
That last one is the question that communities like ours have been struggling to answer for years.
To the few who have not been touched by overdose in some way -- Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health recently published a survey reporting that one in three Americans know someone who has died of a drug overdose – the problem might seem simple on the surface, but it’s one made far more complex by the stigma and emotion that is woven into it.
With that in mind, what can we do about it?
Understand the basics behind what causes an overdose. Opioids belong to a class of drugs called Central Nervous System (CNS) depressants, which slow or block CNS signals to the brain. In large enough quantities, there is enough blockage that a person will stop breathing altogether, resulting in an overdose. Commonly known opioids include Heroin, Vicodin, Fentanyl, Methadone, Codeine and Oxycontin.
Carry Narcan and test strips with you. Narcan is the most commonly found form of Naloxone, a medication used to restore breathing and reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Narcan is readily available and easy to use – it is a simple nasal spray (block out images of the giant needle plunged into Uma Thurman’s chest in “Pulp Fiction,” that’s not necessary here) that can be found in any pharmacy, or you can receive the medication and training on how to use it free of charge at North Shore Health Project/ONESTOP. Narcan is also otherwise harmless, so if you use it when opioids aren’t present, there is no fear of causing further harm. Test strips are available for the community as well. These strips can be used to find out if fentanyl is present in another drug, including cocaine and pressed pills.
What does an overdose look like? Some common symptoms to look out for include: dilation of pupils, nodding and loss of consciousness, labored, slow or shallow breathing, limp body, and blue or pale skin hue that is clammy to the touch.

If someone is overdosing, how do I respond? An overdose can be an intimidating, scary and challenging situation. Try to keep these steps in mind if someone near you overdoses:
1. Recognize the overdose.
2. Administer Narcan.
3. Call 911 and let them know that you are with someone who is not breathing and not responding.
4. Perform rescue breathing to keep air in the lungs in the person who is overdosing and prevent possible brain damage.
5. Stay until help arrives.

Good Samaritan laws offer protection for the caller and person overdosing when you have to call 911.
Massachusetts is a Good Samaritan state, which provides limited immunity from arrest or prosecution for minor drug law violations (simple possession, possession of paraphernalia).
Engage with community providers for support. North Shore Health Project/ONESTOP (Gloucester, Essex, Rockport, Haverhill, Ipswich, Hamilton, Wenham, Beverly, and Health Innovations/Healthy Streets (Lynn, Lowell, Revere, Randolph, Chelsea) both provide Narcan distribution and training, along with other support services like syringe exchange, HIV/HCV/STI testing and case management. The NHSP also provides overdose follow-up support for people who need it.
Learn to Cope provides support for families dealing with addiction, including meetings in Gloucester, Ipswich, Haverhill and Peabody.
After hearing news of this sort happening so close to home, we are reminded that even though there have been gains here and there, we still have a long way to go when it comes to overdose prevention. Together, we can take steps to get closer to our goals of keeping the loved ones safe.

Susan Coviello
Executive Director
North Shore Health Project