As New Haven grappled Thursday for the second straight day with a drug overdose crisis, new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that Connecticut’s rise in overdose deaths in 2017 was much higher than all but one other New England state.
According to early estimates from the CDC, Connecticut saw an increase of around 10 percent, which is on par with the U.S. as a whole but higher than all other New England states except Maine, which saw an increase of around 14 percent. Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Vermont all saw declines.
The Mirror reported in March that overdose deaths in Connecticut have nearly tripled in a six-year period, when the state medical examiner made 2017 data available for the first time. The new CDC data, which are estimates and subject to change, put Connecticut’s 2017 figures in a national context for the first time.
Here and across the country, the rise in deadly overdoses has been driven by synthetic drugs, including fentanyl.
A rash of nearly 90 non-fatal overdoses in New Haven brought the issue to national attention in real-time on Wednesday. That day, first-responders repeatedly crisscrossed the New Haven Green from morning until night to take people to the hospital.
By midday Thursday, the city had responded to at least 88 cases of drug overdoses, according to Police Chief Anthony Campbell.
Officials attributed the overdoses to synthetic marijuana, also known as K2. Although samples the city sent to the Drug Enforcement Administration didn’t come back laced with other substances, officials said testing done at Yale New Haven Hospital did find traces of fentanyl.
“I have heard reports by doctors from Yale New Haven Hospital that some of the testing that they were able to perform did have cases that had fentanyl,” Campbell said. “We sent additional samples to (the DEA) once we were hearing from Yale New Haven Hospital that doctors had found some cases laced with fentanyl.”
While none of the people affected by the overdoses crisis in New Haven this week have died and it is still unclear whether fentanyl played a role in the outbreak, the rash of overdoses is a startling reminder that Connecticut is in the midst of a significant substance use crisis, despite ongoing and unified efforts to address it.
Since the rise of fentanyl in the opioid epidemic, a wide spectrum of local, state and federal officials have been working to implement a series of initiatives to fight the surge of the powerful drug. Those efforts have included prevention education, more access to medication-assisted treatment that helps curb cravings for opioids, and a larger federal focus on individual overdose deaths.
The CDC numbers released this week are estimates, adjusted for under-reporting due to pending cases. They differ from the figures reported by the state medical examiner’s office earlier this year.
Despite a rise in these deaths, The Washington Post observed that nationally, the 12-month overdose death totals appear to have plateaued and begun to decrease. That was true in Connecticut as well.
During a Thursday press conference, New Haven Mayor Toni Harp said President Donald Trump’s nominee for drug czar, Jim Carroll, will visit the city on Monday.
“We’re eager to raise awareness at the highest levels of the federal government for a better sense of what happened and the challenges that urban centers face in terms of combatting a consistent vexing presence of people with substance abuse disorder,” Harp said.
In New Haven, police arrested two suspects they believe were selling and handing out the drugs. Campbell said one of the individuals “may have had the intent of trying to get people addicted to this product thereby starting a chain of clients for themselves.”
Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said the state’s Department of Public Health delivered 50 doses of naloxone, an overdose reversing drug, to the emergency personnel responding to the crisis.
New Haven Office of Emergency Management Director Rick Fontana said naloxone is distributed as a protocol if people exhibit certain signs and symptoms, but it did not work for anyone given it in the field. Dr. Andrew Ulrich, the vice chair of operations at Yale’s Department of Emergency Medicine, said the vast majority of patients they saw did not require naloxone.
Harp said the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services will provide New Haven with recovery coaches, training, dissemination of naloxone, and funding for a street psychiatrist.
Use the tool below to see how drug overdose deaths were reported by the state’s chief medical examiner in your town, based on residence of the deceased.