Drug overdose deaths continue to increase in New London, Norwich, state

Drug overdose deaths continued to rise in the New London and Norwich last year, a sobering fact that local health and social services advocates say is a sad reminder that the fight against the opioid addiction crisis is an ongoing one.

New London led New London County, with 33 of the 109 overdose deaths, including 29 in which opioids were found to be a contributing factor, newly released statistics from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner show. The victims ranged in age from 24 to 65 and included 10 women. It was an increase from the 26 deaths documented in 2018, of which 24 were opioid related.

The Norwich Heroin Task Force released its own report this week on total 2019 overdose deaths and demographics of the victims in the city. The report said 28 people died in Norwich — 23 Norwich residents and two who lived outside Norwich but died in the city — plus two more who lived in Norwich but died of overdose outside the city.

Norwich Human Services Director Lee Ann Gomes, a member of the task force, said unfortunately the 2018 sharp decline in overdose deaths now appears to be the "anomaly," down sharply from the 33 deaths in 2017.

In contrast, Groton, the most populous municipality in New London County, accounted for eight deaths, down one from a year prior, the state medical examiner's numbers showed.

White males dominate the overdose deaths in Norwich, with 67% of victims male. Overall, 97% of victims were white, according to the report statistics compiled by task force member Samuel Browning, a Norwich attorney and former alderman.

The age of victims is dropping slightly, from an average in the mid-40s in 2015 to now mid-to-late 30s to early 40s.

The local increases mirrored a statewide 18% spike in deaths for 2019. There were 1,200 overdose deaths in Connecticut — a new high for the state attributed to the rise of the use of the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Chief Medical Examiner James Gill, in a statement, said the presence of fentanyl in toxicology reports rose 29% and cocaine by 34%. Overall, 94% of the accidental intoxication deaths, or 1,127, involved some type of opioid. Many times the cause of death was a mix of drugs. Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer used for horses, was detected in 71 of the fentanyl deaths. This is likely being added locally as an adulterant, Gill said.

In Norwich, Browning calculated that 70% of overdoses involved three or more substances. Cocaine was present in 53% of cases, heroin in 27% and fentanyl in 83%, up from 67% in 2018.

Browning said, "The question I would like to ask the deceased is: Given that fentanyl was found in their system, did they know they were putting fentanyl in the system? From a program standpoint, that would help."

Statistics provided by the medical examiner’s office show 11 of the New London deaths occurred at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital; 22 New London residents were among the 33 who died in the city. The medical examiner’s report lists 69 people across the state in which no residence was listed, an indication of homelessness.

In Norwich, 20 victims, or 67%, overdosed in their own home, five in a friend's residence, two in a local store or restaurant and one in a halfway or recovery house. Browning declined to identify the facility.

Jennifer Muggeo, supervisor of administration, finance and special projects for Ledge Light Health District, said the New London numbers were disappointing but not surprising, given the rising numbers across the state. She said the deaths show the risks of using unregulated drugs and the danger posed by fentanyl.

The crisis is being attacked locally on several fronts, she said, including through widespread use of the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, education and awareness for first responders and attempts by a coalition of local agencies to reach people in need.

There are signs the local effort is working, with the New London Fire Department reporting a significant drop in overall overdose calls — 288 in 2015 to 179 in 2019 — an indication that people with substance abuse issues are getting follow-up care.

But there remain barriers for people seeking medically assisted treatment, such as methadone, Muggeo said. Those barriers include lack of transportation for doctor appointments and lack of money for a co-pay.

“There is definitely a treatment gap,” she said. “It’s important we expand our harm-reduction efforts, give people a safe place without judgment and connect them with whatever supports they need."

Gomes said the coalition of agencies working to combat opioid addiction have focused heavily on education, awareness and treatment. But she said it could be difficult reaching the demographic most affected: adults in their 30s and 40s.

Browning's report broke down the overdose deaths by neighborhoods, and Gomes said the groups will reach out to churches, civic groups and neighborhood groups in those areas with information about addiction, prevention and treatment.

The group also received a grant to reach out to addicted pregnant women, purchasing 25 backpack-style diaper bags and filling them with both baby supplies and information, videos and references on treatment options. Twenty of the packs were given to Norwich OBGYN, which is reaching out to its patients with safe medication treatment options.

Recovery coaches follow up with visits to victims who survive overdoses, Gomes said, and a Norwich police officer might accompany the coaches in the hopes of presenting a more positive interaction between residents and police.

The county’s Opioid Action Team, which partners with two dozen different agencies, established the recovery navigator program in April 2018, in which so-called navigators attempt to seek out people in the community who might not otherwise get help on their own.

A navigator is a regular at the New London Homeless Hospitality Center, where there have been several overdoses over the past year. A doctor accompanies the navigators three times a month to prescribe medication. Alliance for Living has a syringe exchange program.

Rayallen Bergman, prevention coordinator for Norwich Human Services, said similar efforts are taking place in Norwich. There is a new initiative, he said, to get a better grasp on the regional data to help with follow-up care. That involves working with local emergency responders, most often police, to get advocates out for follow-up visits.

g.smith@theday.com

c.bessette@theday.com

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