BRIDGEPORT, CT — Accidental drug intoxication deaths, which increased 25 percent in 2016, “are not decreasing,” Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner James Gill told first responders and community providers Monday.
“We are seeing two or three deaths a day, sometimes five or six,” Gill said at summit on the opioid epidemic at Housatonic Community College in Bridgeport.
The summit was organized by U.S. Sens. Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal and featured Gill and Dr. Bertha Madras, a professor at Harvard Medical School and one of five members of President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.
Gill told the audience that the opioid crisis in Connecticut “is real not exaggerated – and we have the data to prove it.”
He said while his office hasn’t compiled firm statistics for the first half of 2017 yet, nothing he or people in his office have seen make him believe that the opioid crisis is slowing.
Of the 2,300 autopsies conducted in 2016, 917 of them were deaths due to accidental drug overdoses.
Gill said 853 of the overdose deaths due to opioids – 483 of them were due to fentanyl.
He said the spike in fentanyl deaths was particularly alarming, noting that the number has skyrocketed over the past few years. In 2013, there were 37 fentanyl related deaths.
Accidental drug intoxication deaths in the state over the past five years have spiked each year, starting with 357 in 2012; 495 in 2013; 568 in 2014; 729 in 2015; to 917 last year. There were more than 2.5 times as many deaths in 2016 than there were in 2012.
To back up Gill’s point, on display was a quilt which had the names of people who had died from accidental drug overdoses.
But sadly Connecticut isn’t alone.
Madras gave a presentation, which showed “that we are a nation awash with opioid pills.”
She said the United States, far and away, prescribes more opioid medicine than any other country in the world.
She said 23-25 million Americans report that they feel “some sort of daily chronic pain. And the answer to treating that pain has consistently been to prescribe, dare I say over prescribe, opioids.”
Madras told the audience that: on a daily basis more than 650,000 prescriptions are dispensed in the United States; that 3,900 people initiate nonmedical opioid use; that 580 people initiate heroin use; and that 91 people die of an opioid overdose.
She said the solution is complex, but doable. She suggested that a good start would be physicians simply knowing when their patients have overdosed. Beyond that, she said ample supplies of Narcan in the hands of first responders, prevention campaigns and better treatment methods would all be beneficial.
Murphy, who last year was the co-author of a mental health reform bill signed into law by then-President Barack Obama that included $1 billion to combat the opioid addiction crisis in the country, said “the size of the crowd here today shows the size of the problem.”
“This crisis is getting worse, not better,” Murphy said. “The numbers are headed in the wrong direction.
He added, “I shudder to think what the numbers (of deaths) would have been if we had not put as much Narcan as we have in the hands of first responders.”
Senate Republicans who are looking to push their health reform over the finish line have debated increasing the amount of money for opioid programs in certain states in order to win the support of lawmakers.
The Senate bill offers $2 billion, in 2018 alone, for mental health and substance and treatment.
Opioid deaths nationally exceeded 59,000 in 2016, according to preliminary data compiled by the New York Times.
Blumenthal said the opioid crisis is headed for a critical juncture in Washington when the Senate returns this week to discuss replacing the Affordable Care Act.
“We are literally beginning a week that will be an epic struggle,” Blumenthal said, stating programs combatting drug use “could face drastic cuts unless we act to stop it.”
At the end of the speaking portion of the program, the participants broke into working groups to outline areas in Connecticut in need of federal support and reform.
The list of recommendations were to be turned over to Murphy and Blumenthal to send to President Trump’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis.