Connecticut sees more than 900 fatal overdoses in 2016

The number of accidental intoxication deaths the state saw in 2016 increased 25 percent from the previous year and broke 900 for the first time, according to statistics Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill released Friday.

Of the 917 people who died from overdoses, 504 had heroin in their systems, 479 had fentanyl and 276 had both. The numbers are higher than what Gill’s office had predicted based on the first half of 2016: 888, 488, 446 and 238, respectively.

In testimony presented to the Connecticut General Assembly Appropriations Committee on Thursday, Gill explained how the increasing number of deaths has affected his office, which is bound by state statute to investigate all deaths that are unexpected, suspicious or unnatural.

In a three-year span, the number of autopsies state medical examiners perform yearly has increased 60 percent, or by about 900 autopsies. At the same time, Gill said, he’s been dealing with “record low staffing within the agency.”

“The result has been delayed final death certificates and autopsy reports (now with a backlog) and overworked and injured staff,” Gill wrote in his testimony.

Just last week, Gill announced his office had lost full accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners, or NAME. The association found four “major deficiencies” at the office, including three related to inadequate staffing and one a result of inadequate refrigerated body storage space.

Just one major deficiency is enough for an office to lose full accreditation.

In his testimony, Gill asked legislators to fund the roughly $190,000 salary of two new medical examiners.

Although NAME recommended the office should add three examiners, Gill is cautiously optimistic that fatal overdoses will level off and said his office could correct the major deficiencies with just two additional examiners.

If the office doesn’t remedy its problems by September, it will completely lose NAME accreditation, which Gill said could delay funeral arrangements, delay the distribution of life insurance benefits and make opinions on causes of death more likely to be challenged or doubted in court.

“The NAME report tells you what the problems are and also what needs to be done to fix them,” Gill told the legislators. “I need your help to fix them.”

Overall, Gill’s data show heroin-related deaths increased by about 21 percent from 2015, while fentanyl-related deaths rose a striking almost 155 percent, from 188 in 2015 to 479 in 2016.

Cocaine overdose deaths also jumped by 54 percent from 2015 to 2016. Since 2012, such deaths have increased by 160 percent.

Gill said many of the deceased thought they purchased cocaine, but instead received the much more potent fentanyl or a mixture containing fentanyl.

That most notably was on display in June 2016, when almost 20 people overdosed on some combination of fentanyl and cocaine in the vicinity of New Haven. At least three of them died.

In pure form, Gill noted, the color of fentanyl resembles that of heroin and cocaine.

Locally, Norwich saw the most fatal overdoses last year. While in 2015 there were 17 such deaths, 2016 brought 29. That’s fewer than the 36 overdose deaths the city was on pace for halfway through last year, but still a more than 70 percent increase.

Other local municipalities that had fatal overdoses in 2016 are:

  • New London - 22
  • Groton - 7
  • Montville - 5
  • East Lyme - 3
  • Stonington - 3
  • Waterford - 3
  • Ledyard - 1
  • North Stonington - 1

Not all who died in a particular town were from that town. Not all of the local overdoses were opioid-related, either, though most were.

l.boyle@theday.com

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