HARTFORD, CT — There’s a new trend within the opioid epidemic and it’s making patients sicker and harder to treat.
“The number of patients we are treating for fentanyl misuse is skyrocketing,” Aneta Godlewski, director of InterCommunity’s Detox Center and residential program in Hartford, said. “A few months ago, we would treat only a handful of people who had fentanyl in their systems and most didn’t even know it. Now, we are treating dozens and dozens of people every week, who come in, knowing they took fentanyl.”
In July alone about 60 to 70 of the 288 patients admitted to InterCommunity were knowingly using fentanyl.
Amanda (we aren’t using her last name) was one of those patients.
The 26-year-old said she began to notice about five years ago that when the bags she bought didn’t have enough fentanyl that she would get sicker. Since fentanyl is white and heroin is brown Amanda was able to deduce that the more white powder the better she would feel even though she was unable to determine the potency of the substance. She said she quickly figured out that she needed the synthetic opioid in order to feel normal or not sick.
She said she would wake up crying because she didn’t want to have to take it, but it was the only thing that helped her from feeling sick. She said she was aware it could kill her, but the nature of addiction makes it difficult to resist.
“They take this drug knowing just one drop could kill them,” Godlewski said, “but they do it anyway because their addiction is so powerful.”
She said no addict can tell the strength of the dose they are getting and just two milligrams could kill a person.
“You can’t turn over the bag and read a label,” Godlewski said.
She pointed to the 100 overdoses on the New Haven Green a few weeks ago as an example of addiction, despite the risk. Most of those who overdosed on K-2 ended up in the hospital and then returned to the green to get another high. It was initially thought the synthetic marijuana known as K-2 was laced with fentanyl, but that turned out not to be the case.
The incident on the New Haven Green involved a different synthetic drug called AMB-FUBINACA, which was developed by Pfizer researchers in 2009 but was never taken to market. However, illicit manufacturers in China or Mexico are able to access the formula on the dark web and add it to a drug like K2.
Similar to AMB-FUBINACA, China and Mexico are also popular places for fentanyl production.
Fentanyl is much cheaper to produce than heroin because it can be manufactured in a laboratory, rather than grown on a farm.
Godlewski said they had patients coming in to be treated for fentanyl misuse, but they didn’t necessarily even know they were addicted to fentanyl because it doesn’t show up on the standard opiate drug test.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid pain medication typically used to relieve ongoing pain in terminal cancer patients. It’s 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine and 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin. However, the standard opioid drug tests do not identify this synthetic opiate.
Godlewski said it’s a more expensive test, but InterCommunity has made an investment in testing to help them better understand what their patients are up against.
She said fentanyl is a much tougher habit to quit than other opioids because it makes the patient sicker and it often requires several relapses before a patient is able to reach recovery.
The epidemic is widespread in Connecticut.
Godlewski said they are treating patients from all around the state including towns as far away as Greenwich.
“West Hartford, Torrington, Waterbury, Meriden, Hartford,” Godlewski said, “It doesn’t matter where you live, we are treating patients from all around Connecticut. We want people to know that fentanyl misuse in Connecticut is growing at a rapid pace according to what we are seeing at our treatment centers. People need to know that this is a drug that can kill you after using it just one time. We have to keep the conversation going in order to save lives.”
InterCommunity health officials warn there’s been a spike in fentanyl misuse.
“People tend to think this is a distant problem until it isn’t,” Kim Beauregard president and CEO of InterCommunity said. “Addiction is distant until it reaches the shores of our families and hits us like a tsunami. Then suddenly it’s your daughter, your son, your brother, your sister. We need more funding for long-term treatment plans to help people struggling with the disease of addiction.”
Opioid prescriptions, the target of most legislation, decreased 16 percent in the first half of 2018 compared to the same period in 2017, according to a new Food and Drug Administration analysis. However, heroin and fentanyl overdoses continue to rise.
In Connecticut there has been an increase in total overdose deaths among residents from 357 deaths in 2012 to 1,038 deaths in 2017.
In 2017, at least 333 of the heroin overdoses that resulted in death included fentanyl. In total, fentanyl was involved in 677 deaths last year, according to information from the Chief State Medical Examiner.
The state of Connecticut has passed legislation in 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 to try and combat the opioid epidemic and it has made some progress, but drug dealers are smart and drug manufacturers are trying to come up more creative ways to retain their clientele.
“The scourge of opioid addiction knows no bounds, affecting people of all races, income levels, and geographic locations. It is a complex crisis that does not have one root cause and requires a comprehensive solution,” Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said Friday. “We – not just government officials, but all of us – need to do everything in our power to raise awareness of this horrendous disease, treat it, and prevent it wherever possible.”
Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said there are still too many people overdosing in Connecticut every day.
U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy said he’s fighting to make sure addiction is treated the same way as everything below the neck when it comes to insurance.
He said the opioid bill the Senate has been discussing needs to include improvements to parity laws. But the Senate has yet to take up the legislation.
In June, the House passed the Synthetics Trafficking and Overdose Prevention Act which would better track and derail illicit synthetic opioids in the mail. However, the Senate has been slow to act.
“It is outrageous that Poisonous Synthetic Heroin Fentanyl comes pouring into the U.S. Postal System from China,” President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter Aug, 20. “We can, and must, END THIS NOW! The Senate should pass the STOP ACT — and firmly STOP this poison from killing our children and destroying our country. No more delay!”
According to STAT the Senate is likely to take up the legislation in the coming weeks, but a final vote isn’t expected until after the election in November.