Connecticut medical examiner’s office projects nearly 900 fatal drug overdoses in state for 2016

This story originally appeared in the New Haven Register and was written by Esteban L. Hernandez.

HARTFORD >> The state’s Chief Medical Examiner is projecting nearly 900 people will die of accidental drug overdoses this year, continuing the annual increase of deaths attributed to drug use in the state since 2012.

Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill said in a release Friday that between January 1 and June 30, the first half of the year, 444 people died of accidental drug intoxications in the state. Gill is projecting 888 people will die of drug overdoses this year, which would be a sharp increase from the 729 fatal drug overdoses in 2015.

Gill is projecting 528 of those projected drug intoxications will involve opioids, which includes heroin, morphine, codeine and fentanyl. The sheer increase in drug overdoses has overwhelmed Gill’s office, which does not have enough pathologists to handle such an increase and has faced budget cuts. Gill said this summer that, as a result, he expects his office will lose accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners.

Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that can be 50 times stronger than heroin, is still being found in more and more fatal overdoses in the state. Last year, 188 accidental drug intoxications involved the powerful narcotic, but that figure has already been surpassed this year, as Gill said 223 overdoses involving fentanyl have been identified during the first half of 2016. His 2016 projection for overdoses involving fentanyl is 446, more than double the 2015 figures. For added context, the state recorded 357 accidental intoxication deaths in all of 2012 and 496 in 2013.

“Heroin and cocaine deaths also have increased,” Gill said in an email statement to media. “Some of the increases in the heroin and cocaine deaths, may be related to fentanyl as many of the heroin and cocaine deaths also involved fentanyl.”

Another alarming trend is combining opioids with benzodiazepines, which are a class of drugs sold under brand names such Valium and Xanax and are often prescribed to treat anxiety disorders. Gill said there’s been an increase in overdoses involving both opioids and benzodiazepines (sometimes called ‘benzos’) during the past four years.

Numerous overdoses could be attributed to individuals who believed they were buying a substance such as cocaine or heroin that ended up being fentanyl or a mixture containing this synthetic opioid. The most recent and devastating example of this scenario came in New Haven in June, when three people died and about two dozen more were hospitalized after they used what they believed was cocaine. The drug ended up being fentanyl.

“This has been described as drug-Russian roulette,” Gill said. “One never knows what the packet or syringe contains and whether it may be ‘loaded’ with a fatal shot.”

The state has done its part to address the epidemic, announcing this week that the state’s Department of Public Health had distributed more than 9,200 kits of the overdose reversal medication naloxone since 2014. Coinciding with International Overdose Awareness Day on Wednesday, the state also introduced a new, interactive website that lets people search for nearby pharmacies that dispense naloxone. New Haven held a naloxone training session on Wednesday and handed out more than 100 naloxone kits provided by the state

“New Haven has certainly had their share of opioid overdoses in recent months and it continues today,” city Office of Emergency Management Deputy Director of Operation Rick Fontana said. “New Haven’s aggressive response has been promoting awareness, working with partner agencies with treatment programs, ensuring its Fire Department is well supplied with extra doses of naloxone, as well as supplying and training individuals on the administration of nasal naloxone.”

Just last month, Connecticut State Police announced they had saved their 100th person by using naloxone. The department has carried the medication since 2014. Troopers were trained on how to use Narcan by state conservation officers on Wednesday.

Information on the state’s drug overdoses deaths can be found online at the Chief Medical Examiner’s office website at http://www.ct.gov/ocme.

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