MERIDEN — A record 1,200 Connecticut residents died from unintentional overdose in 2019 — an 18 percent increase from the prior year — and the state is on pace to again set a record this year.
According to the state Department of Public Health, nearly 650 people in Connecticut died of unintentional drug overdoses from January to June this year, an 18 percent increase over the same period last year. At the current pace, the state will finish 2020 with around 1,300 overdose deaths. The vast majority, nearly 87 percent, have been linked to the powerful opioid fentanyl.
As part of International Overdose Awareness Day on Monday, local and state officials, including Gov. Ned Lamont, called attention to the growing opioid crisis.
“Addiction is an illness that should be treated just as any other public health emergency ...,” Lamont said in a statement. “We need to send the message that this disorder can no longer hide in the shadows and be treated like something that shouldn’t be discussed.”
In Meriden, officials spoke during an event in the lobby of the police department.
“As we’ve gone through the COVID crisis, it’s taken up a lot of our energy and resources,” said state Sen. Mary Abrams, who co-chairs the legislature’s Public Health Committee. “But we can’t be negligent in making sure that we continue to look at the opioid crisis here in our state.”
Abrams was joined by state Rep. Cathy Abercrombie, D-Meriden, Democratic CIty Councilor Krystle Blake, a program manager at Rushford behavioral health center, police Lt. John Mennone, and Meriden’s Corporation Counsel Michael Quinn, who is running in the 82nd House District as a Democrat.
Abrams and Abercrombie said the legislature has taken steps in recent years to address the crisis, including passage of a bill that required colleges to adopt policies on the availability and use of opioid antagonists.
Republican Len Suzio, Abrams’ opponent in the 13th Senate District, said in a phone interview that the state’s opioid crisis is an “extremely important issue,” adding he doesn’t believe the state is doing enough to address it. Suzio would like recovery programs to focus more on long-term care and addiction management.
Lou Arata, a Republican challenging Abercrombie in the 83rd House District, called the opioid epidemic “a crisis of enormous proportions” in a written statement and said the state should focus its efforts on combating over-prescription of drugs and educational outreach. A good example is 2019 legislation requiring colleges to adopt policies informing students and staff of the availability of Narcan on campus.
Abercrombie also highlighted awareness and education. “The biggest thing that we need to do is education — education of our doctors, education of our families,” she said during the event Monday. “You know, when an 18-year-old goes to the dentist and gets some teeth pulled and then walks away with a prescription for an opioid, you know we have a problem.”
Abrams said behavioral health care workers have told her caseloads are “way up.” According to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 12 Meriden residents died from accidental overdose from January to June 8 of this year, and 23 residents died in 2019.
Abrams and Abercrombie worry that many in recovery during the pandemic report feeling more stressed and socially isolated. Pandemic restrictions have also made it more difficult for agencies to deliver behavioral health services and supports.
“What I’m hearing from families is that people with addiction need more face-to-face contact,” Abercrombie said. “As good as telehealth is and Zoom and things like that, not having that personal connection and looking someone in the eye has really not been a benefit to anyone with an opioid addiction.”
The American Medical Association reported in August that the pandemic may lead to increases in opioid deaths in 2020, according to a press release sent by Abrams’ office.
“We know that there’s a need out there,” Abrams said, “and we know that people are struggling, and I’m really concerned that people continue to have resources available … so that they don’t choose to use drugs or alcohol as a way to manage their mental health issues.”
The governor’s statement said information is available at liveloud.org and 800-563-4086.
Speakers at the event Monday also promoted the drug take-back box in the lobby of the police station, which the public can use to dispose of prescription drugs.
“It’s extremely important that medications not being used at home are brought here so that they can be destroyed,” Mennone said.
Police have collected more than 600 pounds of unwanted drugs from the box since the beginning of 2019.
Information from the Associated Press was included in this story.