Westborough notes surge in opioid overdoses, considers larger crisis

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Westborough notes surge in opioid overdoses, considers larger crisis
Westborough Police Department is headquartered in the Forbes Municipal Building in town. (Photo/Dakota Antelman)

WESTBOROUGH – Westborough police had noticed a surge in overdose calls earlier this year.

But they were still “shocked” when they reviewed their 2022 data to find that, by March 18, they had already surpassed the total number of overdoses seen in town in 2021.

“That’s outrageous,” Lt. Michael Daniels told the Community Advocate.

Police saw 12 such overdoses through March 18, two of which had been fatal. That marked an increase over 2021, which saw a total of 11 overdoses and no reported deaths.

“It’s tough,” Daniels said after his department shared this data in a Facebook post. “We’re seeing not just an uptick in Westborough, but really all over the Commonwealth.”

Multiple factors compound crisis

Daniels emphasized that there is likely not a singular cause of this recent surge.

He named factors contributing to instances of drug use in Westborough, though.

The town is centrally located between Worcester and Framingham, along I-495 and I-90. It also boasts Spectrum Health, which offers addiction treatment services.

“There are people that are coming from other parts of the Commonwealth,” Daniels said. “They’re staying in Westborough. They’re seeking treatment.”

COVID-19 also has compounded addiction problems, experts say, exacerbating issues of isolation, depression and stress that can sometimes lead to substance use disorder.

On top of that, the prevalence of hotels in Westborough has police frequently responding to incidents involving people who book rooms.

All this has coincided with a change in tactics for police, Daniels said.

Calls reporting unresponsive people in cars come in, and Westborough police, who now all carry the overdose-reversing drug Narcan, respond prepared for an overdose scene, he said.

“That’s the first thing we’re thinking,” Daniels continued.

He noted that police often don’t aim to arrest individuals in these cases, preferring to simply issue court summons.

Police also have a clinician available, in many cases, who can also work with individuals who have overdosed.

“We try to get them help as best as we can,” Daniels said.

Familiarity can inform police responses, as well, he added.

“Sometimes we know who they are because we’ve dealt with them on numerous occasions,” Daniels said of individuals who overdose in town. “We get to know who they are as people.”

‘We haven’t even scratched the surface’

Daniels said he feels law enforcement is “doing everything that they can” to control the ongoing drug crisis.

Even so, he said he knows that there is much that police are not able to document or address.

“We haven’t even scratched the surface as to what travels through this town,” Daniels said.

This problem is, indeed, widespread in Westborough and beyond, with the number of overdose deaths per year nearly quintupling in Massachusetts between 2000 and 2021, according to state data.

Those deaths have hit home in Westborough and throughout the region.

‘We need to end the stigma’

Kate Donaghue lost her son, Brian Simpson, to an overdose in 2018.

Simpson was a Westborough High School graduate.

In comments published in Patch Westborough after his death, Donaghue noted that he was also a “talented and passionate battle rapper who worked with, and inspired people, across the country.”

“Brian was a thoughtful, caring, and compassionate young man,” Donaghue wrote.

Simpson had struggled with addiction, though.

As such, Donaghue has been vocal in her advocacy particularly since her son’s death, leading various efforts pushing to address addiction in Massachusetts.

“We really have to start treating the opioid epidemic like the public health crisis it is and not a moral failing,” she said in a recent interview. “We need to end the stigma so that people who are struggling know how to get help.”

Donaghue has called for a destigmatization of addiction and an increase in access for medications that can help individuals in their recovery.

She has similarly noted legislative efforts to improve treatment infrastructure.

In the meantime, Donaghue acknowledged difficult experiences that those with substance use disorder and their families have had with law enforcement and other public safety officials.

“You hear the horror stories,” she said.

“I can’t say that it’s an improvement, but I can say that, anecdotally, the people who I’m talking with, including public safety officials…are very supportive of this issue,” she added though.

Mother calls for change

Elsewhere in Westborough, Ashley Tenczar Curran grew up in town and battled addiction herself.

She achieved sobriety, but saw her son, Damien Hughes, similarly struggle with addiction as he grew up.

He didn’t die due to an overdose. But addiction still played a role in his passing, as he had recently relapsed when he was fatally stabbed while experiencing homelessness in Boston’s Mass and Cass area in 2020.

Like Simpson, Hughes had also graduated from Westborough High School. He was remembered as a caring, loving man with a persistent sense of humor and a beloved laugh.

In the years since his death, Curran has led her own advocacy efforts, calling for change in how communities handle addiction and pushing for more addiction services outside of cities like Boston.

She’s continued to mourn her son, all the while, recalling a particular lesson from his childhood in a recent interview with the Community Advocate.

“I taught him when he was little, you always hug someone when they’re leaving,” she said. “And you don’t stop until they stop. Because you don’t know when you won’t be able to hug them anymore.”

Shrewsbury, Northborough note overdose upticks

With the opioid crisis continuing, other area communities outside of Westborough have reported mixed data.

Shrewsbury had six opioid related overdoses as of March 21, up from two at the same time a year ago, according to Lt. Nick Perna.

Northborough had seen a “slight increase” in overdoses, according to Lt. Brian Griffin.

Hudson’s number of overdoses had actually fallen as of March 18, with four overdoses compared to nine in the same time frame a year ago, according to Police Chief Rick DiPersio.

Southborough, meanwhile, had only reported one overdose as of March 18, according to Lt. Ryan Newell.

“Thankfully Southborough police has not seen the same uptick,” he said, in reference to Westborough’s data.

Officials with the Marlborough and Grafton police departments did not respond to requests for data as of press time.

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