You have to have been living under a rock to not be aware that Connecticut is in the midst of a heroin and opiate crisis.
But what most people don’t know, and a group of Waterbury parents and other adults found out Wednesday, is that one opiate in particular — fentanyl — is killing people in Connecticut at an increasing and alarming rate.
Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Tracy Dayton told the audience at Kennedy High School that there were 729 deaths in 2015 in Connecticut due to drug overdoses. Of those deaths, 188 died from fentanyl overdoses.
This year, Dayton said, Connecticut is tracking a record 888 overdose deaths for the entire 2016 calendar year. If the trends continue at current rates, she told the gathering, 446 of those deaths, or more than half, will be from fentanyl overdoses.
That information brought a few gasps from the crowd of about 75 in attendance.
Simple, Dayton said. “Fentanyl is much … stronger than heroin. Two milligrams can kill you. It is 50 times stronger than heroin — so strong that two pills can kill you.’
That also means, Dayton continued, that it costs less, since it doesn’t take as much of a dose as heroin or other drugs for users to get high.
Fentanyl is a potent, synthetic opioid pain medication, with a rapid onset and short duration of action. In the mid-1990s, fentanyl was introduced for palliative use with the fentanyl patch, followed in the next decade by the introduction of the fentanyl lollipop, dissolving tablets, and sublingual spray which resorbed through the skin inside the mouth.
Dayton read off more statistics that grabbed everyone in the room’s attention — including the fact that 2.3 million teenagers, or, she said, 9.4 percent of all teens, currently use illegal drugs or opiates in the country.
Deirdre M. Daly, U.S. Attorney for Connecticut, agreed with Dayton’s sobering assessment, stating the Connecticut Medical Examiner’s office predicts there will be 900 overdose deaths in 2016 — half of those from fentanyl use.
“We are experiencing a tremendous and devastating epidemic. Families have been devastated,” Daly said. “We want to stand strong with those who are fighting addiction. This is a disease.”
Wednesday night’s three-hour program in Waterbury was billed by the U.S. Attorney’s office as an opioid awareness conference that included a panel of doctors, law enforcement officials and parents of children who have lost children to overdoses.
This week and in the weeks to come, the office will host similar programs throughout the state as part of its awareness campaign.
Another panelist who seemed to capture everyone’s attention was Dr. Julia Perry, a clinical instructor at the Yale School of Medicine.
Perry told those listening that 80 percent of the prescribed pills being taken daily in the United States are being taken by people whose name isn’t on the bottle.
“I encounter this problem all the time in the hospital,’’ Perry said, “It is not uncommon to see every single day in the ICU (Intensive Care Unit) patients fighting for their lives.’’
Parents in the audience asked Perry and other experts what could be done to stem the opioid epidemic.
“Be cautious about accepting opioid medications,’’ answered Perry, who suggested that patients explore other options for treatment such as yoga, physical therapy, massage, or acupuncture.
She noted that the majority of opioid abusers are teenagers.
“Teenagers are very resilient,’’ she said. “My teenager slammed his head on a bench this morning and five seconds later he was fine.’’
Another panelist was Waterbury Police Chief Vernon L. Riddick, who said so far this year 27 people in the city had died from drug overdoses.
“Collectively we can make a difference,’’ Riddick said. “But we need to have open and honest conversations with our children. We have to act. We have to do something.’’
One of the evening’s most powerful speakers was Charles Grady, the FBI’s Community Outreach and Media Relations specialist.
Grady said he gets mad when he hears about the “epidemic we are experiencing.’’
“Pills have been around forever,’’ Grady said. “Back in 1989 people were taking pills, smoking weed, but back then it was just a little pill being prescribed by doctors. Instead, we were chasing the kilos of crack cocaine.”
Grady suggested that the pill popping problem was evolving right under everyone’s nose.
“This problem hasn’t just started — it’s just gotten a lot worse. It is the most powerful addiction that I have ever encountered,” Grady said.
The night’s program wrapped up with parents talking about losing their sons or daughters to drug overdoses.
One of those was Bob, who declined to give his last name. Bob, a former police officer, said his 22-year-old son died last year from a heroin overdose.
Bob, tears forming as he told his story, said his son’s death was “heart wrenching. It can tear a family apart.”
Bob said even though he and his wife had locks on their medicine cabinet when they became aware of their son’s drug issues, he found another way.
“He would steal stuff from our house and sell it at pawn stores,’’ said Bob, who added he wishes the state would enact tougher laws on pawn store transactions.
Bob told the audience to pay close attention to their children’s actions.
“Watch to see if your child is not acting rationally,” Bob said. “And act, quickly, if he or she isn’t.”