christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie
State Rep. Sean Scanlon discusses the opioid crisis on the Capitol steps in Hartford (christine stuart / ctnewsjunkie)

HARTFORD, CT — It wasn’t a celebration but rather, a commemoration of National Overdose Awareness Day.

For the first time, the flags at the state Capitol were lowered to half-staff as families of loved ones who have died from opioids gathered on the north steps with lawmakers from both parties.

Connecticut is already on track to see more opioid deaths this year than last year, some of which is attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to officials, Connecticut’s opioid deaths are 22% higher during the first five months of 2020 than they were in 2019  when a record number, 1,200 residents, died from drug overdoses.

Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services Commissioner Miriam E. Delphin-Rittmon said sadly that when they look at the data they are on track to exceed the number of overdose deaths in 2019. Fentanyl has been involved in over 85% of those deaths.

“These trends are heartbreaking,” Delphin-Rittmon said. “Each one of those lives represents an individual who lost their battle to addiction.”

“We mourn those who we’ve lost. The sons, the daughters, the wives, the husbands, the neighbors, the loved ones, but we’re here today to also say at the top of our lungs that recovery is possible,” Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, said.

Isolation, fear and difficulty in accessing services may have increased the number of overdoses during the pandemic.

Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said it’s a problem Connecticut can’t fight alone. She said the federal government needs to play a bigger role in funding treatment, as it did with HIV, investing $30 billion in treatment and therapies.

“This is an epidemic that’s killing more people than HIV and so we need our federal government to fully fund that,” Bysiewicz said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said the increased vulnerability to substance abuse is present during this pandemic and the federal government needs to step up to help.

“We’re not going to arrest our way out of this epidemic, but we can support the treatment that is necessary with dollars,” he said.

In the meantime, Connecticut is doing what it can to expand telehealth services to those who might not be able to get into a treatment facility as a result of the pandemic.

“We also need to expand telehealth, especially now,” Bysiewicz said. “Here in Connecticut, we tried to achieve parity both for addiction treatment and for health so that we can help people overcome this disease—and it should be spoken about as a disease.”

Sue Kruczek, a Guilford mother who lost her son to a drug overdose in 2013 and has been one of Connecticut’s leading spokespeople in the fight against the opioid epidemic, said the loss of her son, Nick, never gets easier.

“Losing a child to addiction means you didn’t get to say goodbye,” Kruczek said. “You look for where you went wrong. You look over the years looking for clues questioning every decision and everything you said and did not say.”

She said, “You may smile and stand straight, but you will feel drained and crooked for the rest of your life.”

Rep. Bill Buckbee, R-New Milford, said if the session hadn’t ended due to COVID-19, they were ready to proceed with several pieces of legislation that would have made it easier for Connecticut residents like Brian Cody to receive treatment.

Cody’s family believes if he was not denied access to certain resources he would not have overdosed.

Cody’s father, Anthony Morrissey, said the epidemic is not going away, but he said recovery is possible.

“Recovery is contagious too,” Gov. Ned Lamont said. “ … we’re going to do everything we can to save these lives.”