Fentanyl ‘driving force’ for rise in overdose deaths in CT, officials say

It’s more than population of the cities of Canaan, Colebrook, Union or Warren. It is also 150 more overdose deaths than in 2020.

This increase can be attributed to “prolonged isolation at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic“as well as the increase in the use of fentanyl and other synthetic opioids, according to Art Mongillo, spokesperson for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describe fentanyl as a synthetic opioid, 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. While fentanyl is prescribed for pain, the CDC said most cases of fentanyl overdoses are linked to illegally manufactured fentanyl sold in illegal drug markets for its “heroin-like effect.”

“It is often added to other drugs because of its extreme potency, which makes drugs cheaper, more potent, more addictive and more dangerous,” the CDC added.

Fentanyl played a role in 86% of overdose deaths in Connecticut last year, putting the state’s total above the national average and prompting officials to stress the need to continue monitoring the prevalence of drugs on the illicit market.

Fentanyl keeps killing

In a letter dated April 6 To law enforcement, DEA Administrator Anne Milgram addressed a nationwide increase in massive overdose incidents linked to fentanyl so far this year, citing examples in Florida, Texas and in Colorado where people thought they were ingesting cocaine. Milgram said at least seven confirmed incidents have been reported across the country, resulting in 59 overdoses and 29 deaths in the past two months.

Christopher Boyle, spokesman for the state Department of Public Health, said that although multiple overdoses do occur in Connecticut — where two or more people take drugs together and overdose — the state does not haven’t seen anything on a large scale like what was described in the DEA letter.

Milgram called fentanyl “highly addictive,” adding that it’s found in every state in the country. She said drug dealers mix fentanyl with other drugs, in powder and pill form, to increase addiction and attract repeat customers. Pills that may look like Adderall, Xanax, or oxycodone might be squeezed to look like prescriptions, but actually contain other chemicals like fentanyl or methamphetamine.

Since December 2021, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized 20.4 million fake pills which were often mixed with fentanyl. Of the fentanyl-containing pills, 42% contained a potentially lethal dose.

Only a very small amount of fentanyl is considered life-threatening – around 2 milligrams, or enough to fit on the tip of a pencil.

“DPH is trying to get the message across that when illicit drugs are obtained on the street, there’s a high likelihood that those drugs contain fentanyl,” Boyle said. “We have evidence that drugs such as cocaine and counterfeit pills such as Vicodin or Percocet also contain fentanyl in their contents, among other contaminants.”

Boyle said people ingesting illegally obtained drugs should use harm reduction methods and assume fentanyl is in their drugs.

Milgram said many victims of mass overdoses thought they were ingesting cocaine.

Connecticut is no different. Data from the OCME showed 561 deaths were linked to both cocaine and fentanyl last year, up from 447 in 2020.

Fentanyl has quickly become the leading cause of fatal overdoses in Connecticut over the past decade. In 2012, fentanyl was implicated in about 4% of the 357 overdose deaths that year. In 2015, the number of overdose deaths rose to 728, with fentanyl implicated in around a quarter of them. The following year, fentanyl was implicated in more than half of the year’s 917 overdose deaths.

Rising overdose rates

Data from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics, released in November 2021, indicates that there were approximately 100,306 drug overdose deaths in the United States between April 2020 and April 2021.

That number represented a 28.5% increase from the 78,056 deaths in the same 12-month period a year earlier, the data showed.

Statewide, overdoses killed 1,038 people in 2017, 1,017 in 2018, 1,200 in 2019, 1,374 in 2020 and 1,524 in 2021.

“Fentanyl is the driving force and is largely responsible for these increases,” Dr. James Gill, the state’s chief medical examiner, said Wednesday. “Fentanyl is so potent that it is very difficult to dose it accurately. The people who sell drugs on the street are not chemists or pharmacists.

DPH preliminary data shows that there have already been 166 overdose deaths in 2022 – 144 of which involved fentanyl or a fentanyl analogue, accounting for around 87%.

While the total number of overdose deaths has increased, Mongillo noted that the year-over-year percentage increase in Connecticut is no longer as significant as it once was. From 2019 to 2020, there was a jump of 14.5%, while the jump from 2020 to 2021 was 11%.

Overdose events with more than one victim are not entirely uncommon in Connecticut. Boyle cited an incident at a magnet school in Hartford earlier this year that resulted in the death of a student and a similar incident in New Haven at the correctional facility.

The Department of Corrections did not immediately respond to a request for additional information regarding the overdose incident at a New Haven facility.

While the state hasn’t seen any massive overdose incidents recently, that wasn’t the case a few summers ago.

One day in August 2018, the New Haven Green turned into a makeshift triage center for dozens of individuals overdosing on a batch of synthetic marijuana containing fentanyl, officials said. At least 71 people overdosed in the town of Elm in this massive overdose incident, with first responders scrambling to keep pace with everyone falling ill with symptoms.

Most recently, Hartford Academy of Sports Science and Medicine was closed for several days for decontamination in January after a seventh grader fatally overdosed on a substance containing fentanyl.

Authorities said the 13-year-old boy died after being rushed to hospital in serious condition following a drug overdose inside the school during gym class. Two other seventh graders were also hospitalized after police said they came into contact with the substance. These two students have recovered.

keep people alive

An expert said the death of the 13-year-old boy underscored the importance of making naloxone available in schools.

Hartford school officials confirmed after the boy’s overdose that the district had not supplied the drug or trained staff in its use prior to the incident. Officials said the district will explore getting it into schools.

Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, has been the anti-opioid overdose drug used by first responders for years. It is given when an opioid overdose is suspected and comes in the form of an easy-to-use nasal spray.

The state Department of Education surveyed 178 school districts in February and found that 107 — or about 60 percent — had the drug on hand in at least one school in those districts. Seventy-one districts reported that naloxone was not available in any school.

To combat the growing number of overdoses, DMHAS has prioritized distribution and access to naloxone.

Naloxone can be prescribed by a primary care provider, family doctor, any doctor who can prescribe an opioid, and some pharmacists. The drug may also be provided by some organizations and harm reduction and needle exchange programs.

These needle exchange programs provide sterile needles and syringes as a way to prevent the spread of HIV and AIDS. They also facilitate the safe disposal of used needles and connect people to services and programs such as substance use disorder treatment programs. Needle exchange programs also offer fentanyl test stripswho use a tiny amount of the drug to check if it contains fentanyl.

Drug treatment provided a longer-term solution. This treatment uses drugs such as Methadone, Suboxone, and Vivitrol to reduce cravings and manage pain and withdrawal symptoms. Treatment also includes counseling and behavioral therapies to help with opioid use disorder.

“This treatment approach has been shown to improve survival, increase retention in treatment, decrease illicit opioid use and other criminal activity in people with substance use disorders, increase capacity patients get and keep jobs and improves birth outcomes for women who have substance use disorders and are pregnant,” Mongillo said.

As of Monday, there were 11 beds available at medically supervised withdrawal management centers, according to the DMHAS Substance Abuse Services Availability Website.

Mongillo said DMHAS continues to expand its harm reduction efforts, “which are important in directly reducing the number of overdose deaths.” This includes media and information campaigns that address issues around stigma and ask for help.

“Anything we can do to create low-barrier treatment opportunities in the community is also an important strategy,” he said.

Signs of a possible overdose include loss of consciousness, slowed breathing, and narrow pupils.

Dial 911 if you suspect someone is suffering from an overdose.

To find treatment or other resources, call the DMHAS Access Line at 1-800-563-4086. Help is available 24/7.

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