Trinity Church 2069

Right: The Rev. Ron Tibbetts of the Trinity Church in Wrentham poses with #2069 signs indicating the number of opioid related deaths in Massachusetts in 2016. (Photo by Mark Stockwell/The Sun Chronicle)

The number 2,069 spread like wildfire.

What started as a small church mission to raise awareness of the number of opioid-related deaths statewide in 2016 soon grew into a statewide effort, the Rev. Ron Tibbetts of Trinity Episcopal Church in Wrentham said. 

The movement started after two families that belonged to the parish offered up their loved ones in the midst of addiction in a church-wide prayer. One of the members later died of an overdose. And soon, Tibbetts found the number 2,069 in a May estimate of the number of deaths statewide by the Department of Public Health. 

He ordered signs with the number and put them out on 25 lawns in early fall.

Since then, he said, he's put out more than 1,400 across the state. The number has appeared on lawns in every neighborhood, on highways and on social media. Other groups have started the same mission.

The number of confirmed overdose deaths in 2016 has since risen to 2,190 according to a December Department of Public Health report, a reflection of deaths that were unreported or previously under investigation.

But looking to next year, state officials will have a smaller number to report. Opioid-related deaths statewide are on the decline, they say.

The state estimates 1,470 people died of an opioid-related overdose in the first nine months of 2017. That number is down from 1,637 reported deaths in the first nine months of 2016.

But locally, police and fire departments report their numbers have either remained steady or increased within the last year.

In North Attleboro, the number of overdoses has been on the rise. Police saw 57 overdoses and four deaths in 2017, 46 overdoses and four deaths in 2016 and 37 overdoses and eight deaths in 2015.

As of Dec. 17, Attleboro police said they saw 144 overdoses and 36 deaths. Statistics from the same time frame last year showed 129 overdoses and 13 deaths. In 2015, 138 overdoses and 14 deaths were recorded with two weeks left in the year.

Norton police responded to 26 overdoses and five fatalities in 2017, compared to 28 overdoses and six deaths in 2016. Police Chief Brian Clark said the numbers were skewed by a sudden increase in August of seven overdoses over a four-day period.

But a number of local movements, the #2069 project being only one of them, have attempted to break the pattern.

Bridgewater State University this year became the first college nationwide to offer public access to Narcan, an opioid-reversing drug, across campus. A new drop-in center at Murray Unitarian Universalist Church in Attleboro was created as a one-stop-shop for recovery groups and agencies across the state for those looking for help. 

Two narcotics anonymous groups opened in North Attleboro -- one for addicts and one for families -- after years of roadblocks. Trinity Church held a rally and prayer vigil and offered opportunities for families struggling with addiction to meet and share resources.

Tibbetts said if anything, he hopes the efforts have broken the stigma behind addiction.

"The first word that comes to mind is empowerment," he said. "It's empowered an awful lot of people struggling with the truth of how addiction has affected their lives -- either through a loved one or themselves. People struggling with the stigma of it now have a sign in their front yard that gives them the strength and courage to speak out."

Tibbetts said his church has adopted the #2069 identity. They will not be putting out a new number next year but instead will continue the project in remembrance of those who died in 2016.

For one, they don't have the manpower to replace all of the signs. But they're also investing that energy into a larger mission: Challenging the stigma. Offering ways to find help. Talking about addiction.

"It's become a central conversation here at the church," he said. "We're having conversations about what is the next thing, what can we do next?"

Kayla Canne can be reached at 508-236-0336, kcanne@thesunchronicle.com or on Twitter at @SCNAttleboro.

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