Connecticut's overdose death rate exceeds national average

In this May 1, 2017, Day file photo, first responders place a man in the ambulance after he suffered from an apparent drug overdose at a New London residence. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)
In this May 1, 2017, Day file photo, first responders place a man in the ambulance after he suffered from an apparent drug overdose at a New London residence. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day)

There was a time when deaths listed as “unexpected” or “sudden” didn’t raise so many eyebrows.

But as the opioid crisis worsens — new data show more than 60,000 people might have died of drug overdoses in 2016 — and President Donald Trump declares a national emergency, sometimes one can’t help but wonder: Could it have been an overdose?

Though it's uncommon, some families choose to answer that question in the obituary about their loved one.

Back in February, for example, a passionate eulogy for Daniel Mark Majchrzak of East Lyme said the 24-year-old had “ended his courageous six-year battle with opiate addiction.”

It went on to detail Majchrzak’s athleticism, sensitivity and humor before urging people to recognize addiction as a disease.

“We must come together to end this epidemic,” the obituary reads. “We ask, in Danny's memory, that you reach out to someone who may be struggling. Grab their hand. Don't let go. Never Give Up.”

When new data are released — such as on Tuesday, when the National Center for Health Statistics reported that fatal overdoses on all kinds of drugs, not just opioids, continued to soar in the third quarter of 2016 — it’s memorials like Majchrzak’s that help bring humanity to the staggering numbers.

According to the federal statistics, the first three quarters of 2016 brought an average overdose death rate of 19.3 per 100,000 population — a rate that’s 17 percent higher than during the same period in 2015.

If 2016’s rate holds steady through the final quarter — data for it isn’t yet available — we’ll learn that more than 62,300 people died of overdoses in the United States in 2016.

That’s almost enough people to fill Gillette Stadium, where the New England Patriots play.

The president said he officially will declare the opioid crisis a "national emergency" and pledged to ramp up government efforts to combat the epidemic, The Associated Press reported Thursday.

"The opioid crisis is an emergency. And I am saying officially right now: It is an emergency, it's a national emergency. We're going to spend a lot of time, a lot of effort and a lot of money on the opioid crisis," Trump told reporters during a brief question-and-answer session Thursday at his golf course in Bedminster, N.J. He said he'd be drawing up documents to formalize the declaration.

An initial report from a commission, convened by Trump and led by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, noted that the approximately 142 deaths each day from drug overdoses across the country mean the death toll is "equal to September 11th every three weeks," AP reported.

In Connecticut, data previously released by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner show overdose death rates in 2015 and 2016 in the state were even higher than the national average.

The 729 people who died of drug overdoses statewide in 2015 represented a rate of 20.3 deaths per 100,000 people. In 2016, that rate increased to 25.6, or 917 deaths.

It’s harder to get a feel for how many people have died of overdoses across the state this year.

Plagued by budgetary issues, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill’s office has been forced to discontinue its quarterly release of data for Connecticut. According to Gill, though, the office still plans to release half-year statistics by the end of the month.

On Wednesday, Gill offered a short but firm assessment of the issue in Connecticut: “The number of accidental intoxication deaths is definitely not decreasing.”

In Groton Town, police Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. said while he wasn’t surprised to learn Connecticut’s fatal overdose rate exceeded the general population’s, he was disappointed.

“Despite the work of not just law enforcement, but also all the other people trying to impact this opioid epidemic, there’s still plenty of overdoses out there,” Fusaro said. “We haven’t yet seen the decline we’re hoping to see.”

Fusaro finds some comfort in that the toll likely would be worse were it not for police and medical personnel carrying naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid overdoses.

He said the Regional Community Enhancement Task Force also is working to fortify its presence in southeastern Connecticut. Formed in February 2016 after New London saw 12 overdoses in a two-day span, the force has been operating throughout the area to try to get drugs off the streets.

Right now, Fusaro said member agencies are considering a written agreement to formalize and divvy up the costs of their work.

It’s a situation the lack of a state budget complicates. Without knowing what their financial situation is going to be, Fusaro said, it’s hard for municipal leaders to determine how to delegate resources.

Still, Fusaro said he’s hoping the participating towns come to an agreement within the next month or so.

“We need a concerted effort and everybody pulling in the same direction to really effect a substantial change in this behavior that leads to addiction,” he said.

Associated Press writers Jill Covin and Jonathan Lemire contributed to this report.

l.boyle@theday.com

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