Suspected CT overdose deaths jump significantly, data shows

In this Aug. 9, 2016, photo, a vial containing 2mg of fentanyl, which will kill a human if ingested into the body, is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va.

In this Aug. 9, 2016, photo, a vial containing 2mg of fentanyl, which will kill a human if ingested into the body, is displayed at the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) Special Testing and Research Laboratory in Sterling, Va.

Cliff Owen / Associated Press

Connecticut has already seen 547 confirmed overdose deaths in the first six months of the year, with an additional 383 cases pending confirmation, a significant jump from last year, according to data from the state Department of Public Health.

Dr. James Gill, the state’s chief medical examiner, cautioned, however, that the report is not yet finalized for the first half of 2021 and said, “not all of those pending cases are drug deaths.”

Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, continues to be one of the leading causes of overdoses, according to the report based on statistics from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Of the 547 confirmed fatal overdoses in 2021, more than 80 percent involved fentanyl, the report showed.

Fentanyl was involved in 85 percent of the 1,378 overdose deaths in 2020, the report said. In 2019, 1,202 people died from accidental overdoses, of which 82 percent involved fentanyl. The 2021 figures will likely change as the pending cases are resolved, officials said.

Some Connecticut health experts said the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed to the rising number of overdoses.

“The isolation and distress people have been feeling during the pandemic has resulted in them reverting back to old and unhealthy coping mechanisms,” such as drug use, said Dr. Andre Newfield, chairman of psychiatry for St. Vincent’s Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Services.

At Rushford, Hartford HealthCare’s provider of addiction and mental health treatment programs for teens and adults, the number of overdose deaths in 2021 so far has already equaled the number of such deaths in all of 2020, and exceeded the number of overdose deaths in all of 2019, the facility’s medical director said.

“I am hyper-focused on this and have been for a number of years, because these are our patients,” said J. Craig Allen, Rushford’s medical director and vice president of addiction services for Hartford HealthCare. “These are the people we treat.”

He pointed to the prevalence of fentanyl as one factor in the increase.

“It’s ubiquitous,” Allen said. “It’s not just in heroin. It’s just (used by) people who are looking for the drug. It’s in some or a lot of other substances and it kills (people).”

While fatal drug overdoses increased across the board for nearly every race and age bracket in 2020, the number of people who died from a combination of a powerful animal sedative mixed with fentanyl could likely top 200 in 2021 based on the first six months of the year, according to a monthly report issued by the state Department of Public Health.

The animal tranquilizer is used to enhance the effect of fentanyl, officials said.

During 2020, 141 people died from a combination of xylazine, an animal tranquilizer not intended for use in humans, mixed with fentanyl, officials said.

As of the end of May, 95 people had died from the same mix of drugs that officials first detected in 2019, the report said.

“Xylazine was identified as a novel and emerging adulterant in fatal drug intoxications when combined with fentanyl; it continues to be a problem in 2021,” Department of Public Health officials said in the report.

The number of deaths caused by para-fluorofentanyl, a fentanyl analog, also increased from 13 in 2020 to 38 in the first six months of 2021. Other emerging substances causing deaths included flualprazolam, a tranquilizer sold illegally as a designer drug that was present in 11 overdose deaths in 2020.

The increased number of accidental overdoses in 2020, which largely spanned the coronavirus pandemic, particularly impacted non-Hispanic Black men who died at a rate of 51.9 per 100,000 compared with 34 per 100,000 in 2019, the report said.

The report shows that drug overdose deaths were higher among the white and Black population compared with the Hispanic population, which saw 36.5 deaths per 100,000 in 2020. Non-Hispanic white individuals died at a rate of 39.7 per 100,000 in 2020, according to the data.

New Haven, New London and Windham counties saw the highest overdose death rates, the data showed. Only Litchfield County saw a slight decrease in the rate of overdose deaths in 2020, compared with 2019. Fairfield County had the the overall lowest rate of drug-overdose deaths.

Men had the greatest number of deaths at 58.1 per 100,000 in 2020, compared with women who died at a rate of 18.6 per 100,000. Drug overdose deaths in 2020 were the highest for the 35- to 44-year-old age bracket at 82.2 per 100,000, the report said.

“Services are available,” Allen said. “Part of this disorder (of addiction) is affecting people’s ability to think they can get out of this. But there is hope.”