First-responders assist in one of dozens of overdose cases on the New Haven Green Wednesday evening. Clarice Silber / CTMirror.org

The state saw a 13% increase in fatal drug overdoses in 2020, with most deaths occurring from April to July, when the state was going through the first round of the pandemic.

There were 1,359 fatal overdoses in 2020, with 78 cases still under investigation, according to state Department of Public Health data. In 2019, there were 1,200 deaths.

The largest monthly increase in fatal overdoses was April, when the state was in the throes of the COVID pandemic. Gov. Ned Lamont had ordered a lockdown of the state, closing all restaurants and requesting that people stay in their homes.

There were 133 fatal drug overdoses reported in April 2020, compared to 86 in 2019 — a 35% increase in that month alone.

Overdoses with the animal tranquilizer xylazine continued to be a big problem. The number of fatal overdoses that included combinations of xylazine and fentanyl doubled from 70 deaths in 2019, when the drug first surfaced locally as a mixer with fentanyl, to 140 deaths last year.

But xylazine isn’t alone — there are a number of substances that emerged in 2020 as fatal compliments to fentanyl.

Flualprazolam, a designer benzodiazepine, in combination with fentanyl resulted in 10 overdose deaths. Eutylone, a synthetic stimulant, contributed to three overdose deaths.

There also was a major increase in the use of para-fluorofentanyl, a fentanyl analog, which was found in 12 deaths in 2020, 10 of which were in December alone.

The state had only ever had one seen para-fluorofentanyl overdose death previously, in 2018.

The data also show a big increase in fatal overdoses among African Americans during the first six months of the year, the only period of 2020 for which DPH has so far calculated the data. It shows that the rate of fatal overdoses among African Americans increased from 34 per 100,000 to 50 per 100,000.

The death rates among whites and Hispanics increased slightly.

The county with the highest drug overdose mortality rate was New Haven county, with about 44 deaths per 100,000. Several other counties — Hartford, Litchfield, Middlesex and New London — were close behind, each with around 39 deaths per 100,000.

The only country where the overdose death rate went down was Windham County, which saw a decrease from 39 to 34 deaths per 100,000 in 2020.

In November New Haven created a harm reduction task force that included over 40 different people and organizations.

New Haven Director of Community Services Dr. Mehul Dalal said Thursday the numbers aren’t surprising as they have continually increased.

He said it is unclear what impact COVID  had drug overdoses except that people became isolated and it “made it difficult to know how someone was doing if you didn’t them everyday.’

Dulal sad social services providers adopted as best they could, providing methadone treatments for clients for two weeks or 28 days rather than giving into the in person daily.

“People who do use regularly might not have had access to their regular drug supply and eventually when they did get access that may have led to overdoses because they changed or didn’t remember the level they were at before,” Dulal said.

More people between the ages of 35-44 died from overdoses than any other age group, with an 11% increase in 2020. The death rate jumped from 75 per 100,000 to 86 per 100,000 in that age group, making it by far the group most impacted.

The second-largest increase was in the age group of 55-64, which saw a 9% increase in fatal overdoses.

 

Dave does in-depth investigative reporting for CT Mirror. His work focuses on government accountability including financial oversight, abuse of power, corruption, safety monitoring, and compliance with law. Before joining CT Mirror Altimari spent 23 years at the Hartford Courant breaking some of the state’s biggest, most impactful investigative stories.

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