Connecticut is on pace to see more than 1,000 drug overdose deaths this year — about three deaths per day — according to recent data filed by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of Connecticut.
In the Aug. 28 release, Chief Medical Examiner James Gill projected that a record 1,078 people will die from overdoses in 2017, based on the number of deaths between January and June. Last year, the state saw a total of 917 overdose deaths by year’s end, just under 15 percent less than this year’s projected number.
“Opioid addiction and prescription drug abuse is a disease that is impacting nearly every community and people of every background,” Gov. Dannel Malloy said in a statement issued in response to the report. “It is a complex crisis that does not have one root cause, nor does it have a simple solution, but we need to do everything in our power to treat and prevent it.”
Fentanyl, a strong opiate commonly used to treat severe pain, is the most lethal drug in the state, as it has killed 322 people from January to June of this year. The drugs heroin and cocaine came next, with 257 and 170 deaths involving the two so far.
Following the report’s release, Malloy signed a bill designed to curtail the opioid crisis that is projected to claim three times more lives this year than it did three years ago, when the state saw 357 total deaths. The bill seeks to strengthen partnerships between state government agencies and to better engage health providers in Connecticut.
This is not the first time Malloy has signed legislation to combat the opioid problem, as the governor also signed bills in 2011, 2012, 2014 and 2015. Still, the number of deaths resulting from opioids has risen consistently from year to year. Overdoses involving fentanyl, for example, killed just 14 people in 2012 as compared to 483 last year.
Malloy has also met with members of the Connecticut Opioid Response (CORE) Initiative, an organization designed to lessen the “devastating toll” prescription opioids, heroin and fentanyl are taking on the people of Connecticut.
Robert Heimer GRD ’88, a professor of epidemiology and pharmacology at the Yale School of Public Health as well as a CORE team member, said opioid addiction is harder to tackle as a public health issue than as a medical issue.
“It’s not difficult to handle as a medical issue, we know how to treat it,” he said. “Society has instilled this notion somehow that you have to kick the habit. It’s not a habit. It’s a medical requirement.”
Heimer believes that trying to get opioid addicts to be completely abstinent is a “laudable” but unreasonable goal and ultimately a line of thinking that has helped make opioid addiction a major public health and political issue.
Part of CORE’s mission is to change the way doctors handle possible opioid problems. While doctors often ask patients about their alcohol consumption, they also need to be asking about opioid use, Heimer said. He also has urged doctors to avoid co-prescribing opioids and benzodiazepine, a dangerous combination that can severely depress the central nervous system.
However, Heimer pointed out, drugs well-suited for treating opioid addiction — such as methadone, which is delivered through a clinic-based system, and buprenorphine, which is prescribed by doctors — are limited by federal regulations. Heimer would also like to make naloxone, an opioid antagonist, more readily available for those who have overdosed and need immediate, short-term treatment.
To further counteract the epidemic, CORE has pushed different state departments that handle opioid-related statistics to share information with each other. The State Department of Mental Health Addiction Services and the Department of Consumer Protection, among other state departments, have started to participate, according to Heimer.
Still, Connecticut has a long way to go. All but two of the 18 drugs or combination of drugs listed on the Chief Medical Examiner’s data are expected to cause more deaths this year than they did last year.
“We have to treat addiction like a public health issue, not a crime,” Malloy said in a statement. “Connecticut is taking a stand against a nationwide prescription opioid and heroin overdose epidemic to become a leader in combating opioid and heroin use, preventing drug addiction and overdoses.”
President Donald Trump declared a national emergency over the opioid crisis last month.
Jacob Sweet | firstname.lastname@example.org