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Opioid overdose crisis rages on during pandemic

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, another crisis has raged on, killing hundreds in Connecticut alone: opioid addiction.

In 2020, at least 1,259 people died from opioid overdoses between January and mid-December. The medical examiner's office was still investigating another 276 pending cases that were potentially opioid related.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the pandemic may be worsening rates of opioid addictions, resulting in more overdoses and causing relapses due to a slew of increased risk factors created by social distancing practices to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

Social distancing guidelines have shuttered or slowed many rehabilitation centers, counseling offices and community outreach programs statewide, making mental health services for people battling addiction even more scarce. Skyrocketing unemployment rates and mandated isolation have created additional stressors — both financial and emotional — for addicts in recovery, while social distancing has led many with addictions to use alone, instead of in pairs or groups, making the risk of fatal overdoses even higher.

Nationwide, there were over 81,000 drug overdose deaths between May 2019 and May 2020, the highest number ever recorded in a 12-month period, according to the CDC.

Capt. Brian Wright of the New London Police Department said that while the increase in overdoses in New London since the start of the pandemic “hasn’t been devastating,” it has “definitely been noticeable.”

He said the number of overdoses reported has risen this past year, especially since March when the state first went into lockdown under shelter-in-place orders.

By November, a 12.9% increase in drug overdose deaths was reported in Connecticut in 2020, compared to the same time period in 2019, according to the state Department of Public Health.

“I think there are a number of reasons for the increase,” Wright said. “People may have trouble accessing care because of financial stress and social distancing, they may have to go longer gaps between uses or buy from new sources.”

Using new strains of drugs is one major risk factor for overdose, as potent synthetics like fentanyl can be mixed with drugs like heroin, and can be fatal.

Wright also said many overdoses may be a result of people using alone, without another person to keep an eye on them and call for help in the event of an overdose. “People are isolating so they may not have a buddy system, or someone to watch over them when they’re using, and that can cause a very critical situation,” he said.

The captain said police departments provide resources and emergency supplies like Narcan kits, which halt overdoses, but "it doesn't work if you're the one who overdoses and there's no one there to bring you back."

Peter Canning, a paramedic in the state since 1992, has been tracking opioid usage and overdose data in Connecticut for years, including through the COVID-19 pandemic. As a lead EMS coordinator at UConn’s John Dempsey Hospital and a paramedic in Hartford, he said he has seen a stark increase in opioid overdoses.

Canning, who writes about his experiences on his blog, www.medicscribe.com, and is the author of "Killing Season: A Paramedic’s Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Opioid Epidemic" out April 6, said he worries that during the pandemic, people are forgetting about those victims and the fight against the opioid crisis.

“We can’t forget that this other epidemic, the opioid epidemic, is not only continuing but it’s getting worse,” he said.

When Canning noticed how common opioid overdoses were, he started keeping his own database with demographic information about patients and their usage. Then, he asked himself, “Imagine if everybody was doing this?” He wanted to find a way to help fight the crisis, so he became involved in the Statewide Opioid Reporting program, or SWORD, a program in which paramedics contact the Poison Control Center after every overdose-related call and answer 10 questions about their patient and the overdose. The project started as a pilot in Hartford and rolled out statewide in 2019.

Data from the SWORD program is fed into a real-time map, called ODMAP, that allows people to be alerted of overdoses in a specific town or area.

Canning said that he thinks the increase in opioid overdoses during the pandemic is caused by increased isolation, decreased resources due to lockdowns, social distancing that limits opportunities for community outreach and changes in drug supplies.

He said that during the pandemic, drug supplies have been altered, which can often lead people to buy drugs from unfamiliar suppliers. That may lead people to take doses that are more potent — and dangerous — than they are used to, which can lead to a spike in overdoses.

In southeastern Connecticut, experts said they’ve seen increases in the same risk factors.

“In general, COVID-19 has created isolation for people,” said Carol Jones, director of harm reduction at Alliance for Living, an HIV/AIDS service organization and resource center in New London. “And it has exacerbated stress, it has exacerbated mental health issues and it has exacerbated substance abuse.”

She said that in her role, she has noticed an increase in the number of people in the drug user health program. “I think there is increased use, increased stress and increased mental health situations for people in general.”

While drug use may be up as a result of the pandemic, Jennifer Muggeo, deputy director of Ledge Light Health District, said that in New London, overdose rates haven’t been rising at an alarming rate according to health district data.

“Although people on an individual basis may be increasing their use of drugs as a way to cope with the isolation and anxiety they are experiencing with the pandemic, we actually have not seen our numbers of overdoses skyrocket,” she said.

Director of Human Services for the City of New London Jeanine Milstein attributed the lack of a pandemic-long spike in overdoses to the city’s “recovery navigators” who assist people living with opioid use disorder in accessing treatment and services.

The navigators use a holistic approach to help people, providing them with medication to help manage their addictions and resources to help them use safely, giving out free food, coordinating transportation and helping people find medical resources, along with countless other services.

“We’re there to support people in whatever their individual goals are without judgement,” Milstein said.

“We do whatever we can do to reduce stress and build relationships and develop trust,” Jones said. The overall goal of the program is to show community members that someone — and their entire community — cares about them consistently and wants them alive.

Anyone experiencing addiction themselves, or with a friend or family who needs help, can contact the navigator program by calling (860) 333-3494.

t.hartz@theday.com

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