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By Brian Fraga
Standard-Times staff writer
July 29, 2008 6:00 AM

NEW BEDFORD - After three people died from suspected overdoses in less than two weeks, police are notifying hospitals, medical clinics and outreach workers to be aware of what might be a lethal batch of heroin circulating here.
Officials are awaiting toxicology results to determine the exact causes of death for one man and two women, all in their 20s and 30s, who were found dead in New Bedford this month.
While police aren't certain the three died from drug use, New Bedford police spokesman Lt. Jeffrey P. Silva said, "Given that there were no obvious signs of death in any of the three cases, combined with the information we've learned from our investigation about these people, it is certainly possible they died of a drug overdose."
Joyce Brennan, spokeswoman for Southcoast Hospitals Group, said there has been an overall increase this year of people being treated for heroin abuse at St. Luke's, Tobey and Charlton Memorial hospitals.
"St. Luke's has been working with the police on concerns surrounding lethal heroin being on the streets," Ms. Brennan said.
"When the police notify us this is taking place, it makes the emergency room more aware that there is an issue out there, so we can quickly get a diagnosis and be on alert that this is happening."
The first suspected heroin-related death occurred July 19 when a 39-year-old New Bedford woman was found dead inside a Hillman Street residence. According to report logs, police responded to a complaint of a possible overdose at the residence.
Less than a week later, on July 24, the body of a 24-year-old Swampscott man was found lying on his back in a wooded area at Riverside Park. Two witnesses who found the man said they saw a hypodermic syringe next to him.
The next day, a 31-year-old New Bedford woman was found dead in a hotel room at the Days Inn on Hathaway Road. Police did not say if there was any drug paraphernalia inside the room.
Lt. Silva said detectives are retracing the days and hours leading up to the individuals' deaths to determine if there are any connections between them. However, investigators will not know for certain whether drugs, specifically heroin, were involved until the toxicology results are available.
"Was it a heroin overdose or a bad batch of heroin? It will all rely on the chemical analysis," Lt. Silva said. "It's possible, but there are a number of other possibilities, as well."
As recently as last November, police on Cape Cod warned the public about a possible lethal batch of heroin after two people died hours apart in Falmouth and a third person was hospitalized in Mashpee.
In 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned health-care providers about a powerful version of heroin laced with fentanyl, a painkiller, after several overdose deaths across the country.
As a former member of a local Drug Enforcement Administration task force, Lt. Silva said he had seen "hot mixes" of heroin but did not know if local police had specifically encountered fentanyl-laced heroin.
"We wouldn't be able to speculate if it's that or not," he said. "We're really stagnated until the toxicology."
Heroin abuse has been a long-running problem in New Bedford. Citing the high incidence of overdoses and usage in the area, the state Department of Public Health last year selected the Seven Hills Behavioral Center of New Bedford to administer Narcan, a drug used to reverse heroin overdoses.
Still, more people are being treated for heroin abuse at St. Luke's Hospital.
During the second quarter of the current fiscal year, the hospital treated 87 patients for heroin abuse - an increase of 30 from the same time last year. In the third quarter, which ended June 30, the hospital treated 97. All three Southcoast Group hospitals saw similar increases, Ms. Brennan said.
"If this trend continues, we will have a higher number this year than what we saw all of last year," she said.
In addition to hospitals and health clinics, Lt. Silva said uniformed patrol, probation and parole officers have all been notified of the potential heroin problem.
"This is us just trying to implement an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure," Lt. Silva said.
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