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Report: Norwich overdose deaths declined in 2018, but were younger

Norwich — The number of overdose deaths in Norwich fell sharply in 2018 from the previous year, but they tended to be younger with more women, a study by the Norwich Heroin Task Force released Tuesday revealed.

The study, compiled by task force member and Norwich Alderman Samuel Browning, said 18 Norwich residents died of drug overdoses in 2018, down from 33 in 2017. The average age was 37, down from 41 the previous year. Eight of the 18 in 2018 were women, 44 percent. In 2017, seven women died of overdoses, but they made up only 21 percent of the total.

The downward trend in overdose deaths might be temporary, as the first half of 2019 saw 13 overdose deaths, approaching 2018’s total, Browning said.

Of the 2018 victims, 94 percent were white, up from 82 percent in 2017, and most died at home, whether it was a rented apartment, house or while staying with relatives or friends, which the report labeled as “unstable housing.”

Browning said one overdose victim was living in an unregulated so-called sober house. The owner, a recovering addict, had relapsed and was arrested and jailed, when a resident there died of an overdose, Browning said.

Browning said while that was a small percentage, it indicated the city’s need to again strengthen its regulation and oversight of so-called sober houses.

The study went beyond the statistics Browning gleaned from death certificates filed at the Norwich city clerk’s office. Committee members contacted family members of the deceased and tried to learn how long the person lived in Norwich, whether the person was working, unemployed or disabled and how long the person might have been addicted to drugs.

The 2018 data showed 36 percent of the deceased were estimated to have become addicted to drugs by age 18, up from 21 percent the year before. Another 29 percent became addicted by age 24, an increase of 4 percent from 2017 in that age group. Most were renters or living with relatives or friends. In each of the past two years, only two were homeowners.

Most overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018 — 70 and 67 percent respectively — were attributed to fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid. Heroin deaths dropped from 45 percent to 17 percent, while ethanol accounted for 39 percent of the deaths in 2018, the report said.

Narcan, the opioid overdose reversal drug, was used at least five times on the deceased. Norwich and partner agencies have been hosting Narcan training classes for city employees, business owners and the public in the hopes of preventing overdose deaths, an effort task force member and Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes said appears to be helping to reduce deaths.

Recovery coaches have helped people avoid relapses, also perhaps contributing to the reduction in deaths, Gomes said.

“It really is an uphill battle,” Gomes said Tuesday. “The deaths are lower, which is great, but we’re seeing a lot of overdoses. We’re doing a great job getting Narcan out to families, so that may be stemming the deaths. The usage and the lethality is incredible. We have a long way to go.”

The task force will meet in November to discuss whether to continue the study for a third year, and if so, what new questions could be added to try to find ways to improve overdose and drug use prevention.

Ray Allen Bergman, coordinator for the Norwich Youth and Family Services Partnership for Success prevention efforts, praised Browning and task force volunteer Lynn Thompson for their work to compile the study.

Bergman said he will use the study to assist with grant-funded prevention efforts targeting people under age 25, including school surveys on drug use.

“That’s the primary prevention effort,” Bergman said. “We’re focusing on that, when the addiction is getting younger.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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