HARTFORD — The number of deaths due to accidental drug overdose has continued to rise in Connecticut, but a report from the state’s Chief Medical Examiner shows a smaller increase than past years.
Experts credit the use of Narcan, an opioid overdose antidote also known as naloxone, with helping to slow the increase in overdose deaths. It is used by first responders and is even now available to the public.
While the number of deaths hasn’t increased by as much as past years, the number of non-fatal overdoses has significantly increased.
In Meriden alone, the number of requests for overdose service to Hunter’s Ambulance has risen by about 11 percent each year for the past two years. In 2017, the ambulance service responded to 145 drug overdose incidents, some of them repeat patients. Eighteen of those people died.
The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner reported 36 overdose deaths in Meriden in 2017, compared to 24 in 2016. The death toll rose a combined 38 percent in Southington, Meriden, Wallingford and Cheshire.
In 2017, the state saw 1,038 deaths due to accidental drug overdose, a 13 percent increase from the year before. This is the smallest percent increase of deaths year to year in the last five years.
From 2015 to 2016, the number of deaths increased by 26 percent. Since 2012, deaths by accidental drug overdose in Connecticut has risen by almost 200 percent, from 357.
Fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased by 40 percent from 2016 to 2017. The synthetic opioid is more powerful than heroin and can be deadly when mixed with heroin, cocaine or other drugs, as it usually is.
“We’re seeing more fentanyl out there now… It’s synthetic, so that’s a little easier to get,” said Bill McGovern, Hunter’s Ambulance director of operations. Hunter’s provides ambulance service in Meriden and surrounding towns.
Largely due to fentanyl, first responders have started giving overdose patients more Narcan.
In Connecticut, the rate of heroin in any death decreased by about 8 percent last year, while deaths related to “morphine/opioid/codeine” dropped by 27 percent.
This could be due to the declining availability of prescription painkillers.
“Intelligent, judicious prescribing can prevent someone from beginning to go down this road (of addiction),” said Dr. Howard Selinger, chairman of family medicine at Quinnipiac University’s Frank H. Netter MD School of Medicine.
He said new restrictions are definitely more rigorous, including the Connecticut Prescription Monitoring Reporting System, which only allows electronic prescriptions to prevent abuse.
Nationwide, the death toll from drug overdose continues to increase in what has been declared a “public health emergency.” However, 14 states did see a decline in overdose deaths last year.
Sue Willette, a local substance abuse prevention advocate and founder of Roadway to Hope, said Connecticut should follow the example of the states that saw a decline.
“Something’s gotta change… there’s 14 states that have seen decreases,” Willette said.
She said addiction recovery coaches offered by some Hartford Healthcare facilities are a huge step in the right direction, but more needs to be done for long-term treatment.
Other local experts agree that more long-term treatment is needed.
“We’re getting (overdose patients)” McGovern said of first responders. “We need to get the patients to the treatment to help to take care of the addiction,”
Selinger said some doctors can be reluctant to offer opioid addiction recovery services due to the stigma connected to the issue.
Willette said she considers herself lucky that her two sons who overdosed were able to survive and are now recovering, because she knows it could have gone much differently.
“I thank God every day,” Willette said. “Even when they’re struggling… It’ll be a battle that they fight every single day.”