Robbie Short

Eight months after the Elm City saw three fatal opioid overdoses within a short span of eight hours, New Haven’s city officials, medical professionals and law enforcement agencies have joined together to prevent another rise in fatal opioid abuse.

Thus far, it has been successful: Since the evening of June 23, 2016, when 12 patients were rushed to Yale New Haven Hospital showing symptoms consistent with opioid overdose, there have been no clusters of high-profile opioid-related fatalities in the Elm City. Three of the patients’ overdoses turned fatal, according to a February report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The key to preventing these fatalities requires stocking up on anti-overdose drugs and training health professionals to administer it, according to the CDC report as well as feedback from New Haven City Hall. The report highlighted the important role that both the opioid anti-overdose drug naloxone — commonly referred to by its brand name, Narcan — and overdose education plays in preventing opioid abuses.

In fact, according to the report, the opioid crisis facilitated partnerships between the Connecticut Department of Public Health and the Yale New Haven Hospital. The Yale hospital already runs a program that provides overdose education and take-home naloxone kits to emergency department patients at risk of overdose.

“The value of Narcan was proven that night when this rash of overdoses really could have claimed many more lives,” City Hall spokesman Laurence Grotheer said. “Thankfully there hasn’t been another night like that one, but first responders continue to encounter cases of opioid overdoses.”

Grotheer added that on the heels of the ongoing opioid crisis, Mayor Toni Harp worked to expand the availability of Narcan through the city’s community services administration, which is normally responsible for youth and elderly services. Harp also asked to train employees in that department as well as several New Haven nonprofit providers who are “on the front lines of substance abuse and drug counseling issue” on how to administer the drug, Grotheer said.

As opioid overdoses have rocked the country and Connecticut in particular, Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn, and Sen. Richard Blumenthal LAW ’73, D-Conn., have also been advocating for more funds to address the crisis in-state. The two hope to acquire grants from a bill passed by former President Barack Obama last December that would provide $1 billion across two years to help the states struggling most with opioid epidemics.

Anthony Tomassoni, one of the authors of the report and the medical director at the Yale New Haven Center for Emergency Preparedness and Disaster Response, emphasized the fact that the June 23 overdoses were a result of fentanyl in cocaine, not opioid drugs such as heroin. As a result, many of the individuals who overdosed did not have a tolerance to the drug and required a larger amount of Narcan. Additionally, they were less likely to be educated on the early symptoms of opioid overdose and to have the antidote on hand.

“We believe that there’s a larger place for naloxone distribution in the community,” Tomassoni said.

He added that death in the case of overdose can be prevented if Narcan, which is inexpensive and easy to administer in the form of a nasal spray, is distributed quickly. Opioid users and their friends and family, in addition to first responders, often have it on hand. However, because groups that are not normally exposed to opioids are increasingly at risk, Tomassoni said it should be even more widely available.

Gail D’Onofrio, chair of the Department of Emergency Medicine at the Yale Medical School, agreed with Tomassoni. D’Onofrio has conducted research on overdose treatment, and she said her research has proven that counseling patients on opioid abuse and encouraging them to seek treatment have been successful in treating addiction.

“What we do is we save their lives using naloxone and other supportive therapy, such as oxygen. After we do that it’s really important that we continue to save their lives,” she said. “We do some counseling to encourage them to seek treatment and get medication-assisted treatment. That works really well.”

D’Onofrio said that Yale New Haven has been using this care model for about a year and that emergency rooms across the country have been increasingly adopting their innovative model. Pointing out that there were over 700 opioid related overdose deaths in Connecticut last year alone, D’Onofrio said the key to reducing that number involves multiple strategies, including treating with Narcan, counseling and prevention.

The CDC report is part of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report series.