State officials project accidental drug deaths to remain virtually flat this year, marking the first break in the momentum of an epidemic that has shown double-digit increases year after year since at least 2012.

Connecticut’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Thursday announced a projected overdose death total of 1,030 for 2018 — almost identical to the 2017 total of 1,038. There were 515 overdose deaths in the first six months of 2018, the medical examiner reported.

That 1,030 is still very near the record high death toll of 1,038 set last year, but it’s a welcome change in the deadly trajectory of double-digit percentage increases that have persisted since 2012, when the medical examiner’s office first began breaking out this category of death.

This projection is consistent with federal data released last month. Despite another big increase in drug deaths from calendar years 2016 to 2017, a rolling 12-month total in data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention appeared to have crested, the Mirror reported.

Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, commissioner of the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, said that while she was pleased to see the state projections, she believes state officials still have much work to do.

“People are still dying of overdoses,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “We can’t let up. Our intention is to keep vigilantly addressing this.” 

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy echoed the commissioner’s sentiments.

“Far too many Connecticut families continue to be affected by the opioid crisis. Far too many lives have been cut short. Far too many communities torn apart. It is a public health emergency that knows no socioeconomic or geographical bounds,” Malloy said in a statement.

“The good news is that for the first time in years, we are projected to see a decrease in accidental overdose deaths,” he said. “Even so, what remains abundantly clear is that we must persist in our efforts to combat this crisis.”

Malloy said on Thursday that his administration has made combating the opioid epidemic a top priority, “focusing on the root causes behind this scourge of addiction.”

He said the state has addressed the epidemic in many ways, including enacting restrictions on the prescribing of prescription opioids; promoting the safe disposal of unused prescription medications; and launching its statewide public awareness campaign, “Change the Script,” to raise awareness and provide information to people, communities, health care providers and pharmacists about the opioid epidemic.

Delphin-Rittmon said the state also has recovery coaches now working in 11 emergency departments across the state. She said these coaches have worked with about 1,200 people, the majority of which were connected to care.

The state has also increased access to medication-assisted treatment, also known as MAT,  she said. MAT combines behavioral therapy and medications — like methadone and buprenorphine — to treat substance use disorders.

Delphin-Rittmon said the state has conducted more training programs to increase the numbers of MAT prescribers, as well as focused on at-risk groups by offering MAT in emergency departments and to those who are about to be released from the custody of the Department of Correction.

The state has also focused on wider dissemination of naloxone, which is sold under the brandname Narcan, among others. Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

“Taking a multi-level, multi-agency, multi-system approach, I think that has contributed to the changes in numbers we’ve seen,” Delphin-Rittmon said. 

Jake was Data Editor at CT Mirror. He is a former managing editor of The Ridgefield Press, a Hersam Acorn newspaper. He worked for the community newspaper chain as a reporter and editor for five years before joining the Mirror staff. He studied professional writing at Western Connecticut State University and is a graduate student in software engineering at Harvard Extension School.

Mackenzie is a former health reporter at CT Mirror. Prior to her time at CT Mirror, she covered health care, social services and immigration for the News-Times in Danbury and has more than a decade of reporting experience. She traveled to Uganda for the News-Times to report an award-winning five-part series about a Connecticut doctor's experience in Africa. A native of upstate New York, she started her journalism career at The Recorder in Greenfield, Mass., and worked at Newsday on Long Island for three years. She is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, where she wrote her master's thesis about illegal detentions in Haiti's women's prison.

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