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Medical examiner: Fentanyl-related overdose deaths could double

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Deaths from fentanyl-related overdoses are expected to double from 2015 to 2016 even as the overall increase in accidental drug overdoses appears to be "leveling off," according to numbers released by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner on Friday.

Fentanyl-related deaths could go from 188 last year to a projected 332 this year — a more than 75 percent increase.

From January 2016 through March, the statistics show, 208 people across the state died from an overdose.

Of those deaths, 110 included heroin in some combination and 83 were fentanyl-related, with 39 including both heroin and fentanyl.

If the rate holds steady, Connecticut will finish 2016 with about 832 total accidental drug overdose deaths, compared with 729 in 2015.

That number, Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill said, represents about a 14 percent increase.

From 2014 to 2015, the number of overdose deaths increased 28 percent.

From 2012 to 2015, the number more than doubled.

"Although the number of these deaths is still increasing, this may be a sign that the number of drug intoxication deaths is leveling off," Gill said.

The report comes one day after U.S. Attorney for Connecticut Deirdre Daly announced that nine people were arrested following a central Connecticut wiretap investigation that found more than 2.5 kilograms of fentanyl.

The investigation, thought to be the largest seizure of its kind in the state, also turned up tens of thousands of counterfeit Xanax pills, 2 kilograms of MDMA, also known as ecstasy, and 40 pounds of marijuana.

Fentanyl, which is 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin, is a synthetic opiate intended for use by patients with severe pain, especially those with cancer.

It typically is manufactured in China or Mexico and smuggled into the country.

In New London and other local municipalities, police have pointed to heroin laced with fentanyl as the cause of recent overdoses.

Since Lawrence + Memorial Hospital officials warned of an "unprecedented" number of heroin-related overdoses coming into the emergency room in late January, community officials across disciplines and at all levels have taken action to try to slow and ultimately reverse the trend.

Early last month, law enforcement officials announced that they've been following a new protocol — developed by the U.S. Attorney's Office and the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration — in which they preserve evidence at drug overdose scenes in an attempt to find the source of the drugs that were used.

Later in April, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announced the installation of prescription drug drop boxes, seen as a way to keep drugs out of the hands of youth and out of nature, into each of Connecticut's 11 state police barracks.

On Monday, L+M officials said the hospital will provide a year's worth of Narcan to at least six local police departments, noting that police officers often beat EMTs and paramedics to overdose scenes.

At the state level, legislation that would, among other things, expand access to Narcan and require prescribers to limit initial opioid prescriptions to seven-day supplies except in extreme or chronic cases, has been passed by the House and the Senate and is awaiting the governor's signature.

l.boyle@theday.com

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