This story was originally published in the New Haven Register and was written by Esteban L. Hernandez.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is projecting Connecticut will hit a dire milestone this year: More than 1,000 people are likely to die from drug overdoses in the state.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill in a release Monday said he’s projecting 1,078 fatal drug overdoses by the end of 2017, a skyrocketing figure when compared to five years prior, as fatal overdoses totalled 357 in 2012. The figures indicate there’s no end in sight to the state’s opioid crisis, which is reflective of a nationwide epidemic that President Donald Trump earlier this month called a, “national emergency”.
Gill’s release offered another harrowing milestone: Fentanyl, the synthetic opioid, has surpassed heroin as the most common opioid found in fatal overdoses. Gill had previously warned about fentanyl’s rise in fatal overdoses. The drug, which can be up to 50 times stronger than heroin, was found in 322 overdose deaths so far this year. Heroin by comparison was found in 257 overdoses deaths.
“It appears this increase in overdoses is largely being driven by fentanyl,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement. “To address this issue, we need full force of the federal government to help prevent the influx of fentanyl from abroad — particularly from countries like China.”
Yale New Haven Hospital Chief Of Emergency Services Dr. Gail D’Onofrio said Monday fentanyl’s increase in use is due to lower manufacturing costs, which can increase its profitability. D’Onofrio, who is also a professor of emergency medicine at the Yale University School of Medicine, said fentanyl can be mixed with heroin or even pressed to appear like prescription medicine.
“I’m afraid that, as you can see, it’s escalating. That’s very worrisome” D’Onofrio said. “There’s a lot of ways that they can market this. It’s very scary since it’s more potent.”
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., called Monday’s announcement “devastating” in a statement, adding the opioid epidemic is “ravaging” the state. In a separate statement, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., called the news, “shocking and inexorable.”
“People in Connecticut are counting on us to help end this epidemic,” Murphy said in his statement. “Unfortunately, we’ve only seen lip service from the Trump administration — calling it a crisis but then championing billions of dollars in cuts to Medicaid that would cripple life-saving substance abuse programs that Connecticut families rely on. Republicans and Democrats need to start working together to address this crisis.”
Fatal overdoses have increased in Connecticut each year since 2012, with last year seeing 917 fatal drug overdoses. The overall figures include deaths from opioid such as heroin and fentanyl, as well as other drugs such as cocaine, MDMA and methamphetamine.
According to Gill’s office, 539 people have died from drug overdoses this year between Jan. 1 and June 30. This figure is already close to 2014’s total number of fatal overdoses, which was 568. Deaths from drug overdoses are ruled accidental by Gill’s office.
The youngest overdose victim in the state so far this year was 17 and died in New Preston, while the oldest victim was a 73-year-old Newington resident.
Malloy in his statement said opioid addiction and prescription drug misuse, “is a disease that is impacting nearly every community and people of every background.” Malloy in June signed a bill addressing the crisis by implementing new provisions including restricting opioid prescriptions and requiring electronic monitoring of scheduled drugs. The state has passed other laws addressing the crisis, including increasing access to naloxone, the opioid overdose antidote.
“This is a complex crisis that does not have one root cause, nor does it have simple solution, but we need to do everything in our power to treat and prevent it,” Malloy said in the release. “Connecticut is taking action, but our work is not finished until our communities and our families are no longer struggling with the grave costs of this illness.”
Another powerful opioid that’s found its way into the state’s drug supply is carfentanil. The opioid is most commonly used as an elephant tranquilizer and is about 10,000 times stronger than morphine. Gill’s data indicates the drug was found in at least four overdoses, including two in Bridgeport, one in Norwalk and one in Stratford. The first reported overdoses involving the powerful opioid was reported in Norwalk in April.
The release Monday offered an update on the medical examiner’s office national accreditation status, which had been threatened in part due to the increase in bodies handled by the office. Gill said the office’s accreditation status will be re-evaluated next month.
“We still need at least 2 more medical examiners to become eligible for full accreditation,” Gill said in the release. “Until the final State budget is passed, we do not know if we will get these needed positions.”
D’Onofrio has worked with the state to develop the Connecticut Opioid Response, or CORE, team. Their goal is to collaborative with the state to call attention to addiction treatment options, including medication-assisted treatment options like methadone. These treatment options are “evidence-based,” D’Onofrio said.
D’Onofrio added that people should not be experimenting with pills, including those purchased over the dark web, since the product advertised may not be the one they end up using.
“Everybody is working very hard,” D’Onofrio said. “We have our work cut out for us.’
Monday’s release also included 2016 homicide figures. The office certified 87 deaths as homicides in Connecticut last year, compared to 129 in 2015.
Reach Esteban L. Hernandez at 203-680-9901.