As K2 overdoses in New Haven continue, New London officials wary

New Haven emergency personnel respond to overdose cases on the New Haven Green in Connecticut on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018.  More than 30 people overdosed Wednesday from a suspected bad batch of synthetic marijuana there. No deaths were reported but officials said at least two people had life-threatening symptoms.  (Arnold Gold/New Haven Register via AP)
New Haven emergency personnel respond to overdose cases on the New Haven Green in Connecticut on Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2018. More than 30 people overdosed Wednesday from a suspected bad batch of synthetic marijuana there. No deaths were reported but officials said at least two people had life-threatening symptoms. (Arnold Gold/New Haven Register via AP)

New London — As New Haven continues to deal with a rash of overdoses on K2, or synthetic marijuana, officials are watching to see whether any of the strong and fast-acting batch makes it to New London.

New Haven Emergency Operations Director Rick Fontana said his city has handled at least 85 overdoses since Tuesday, mostly on or near the downtown New Haven Green, a 16-acre park near a major bus hub.

Officials described a chaotic scene in which responders had to be swapped out to avoid “compassion fatigue” and supplies of naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug typically used on opioids, had to be flown in.

None of the overdoses has resulted in death, Fontana said, though many people needed to be resuscitated and/or injected with naloxone and some remained hospitalized.

New Haven police Chief Anthony Campbell said although a sample sent to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration came back positive only for synthetic marijuana, area doctors reported finding fentanyl in some patients.

K2, also known as Spice, has chemicals that are similar to those in marijuana, the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services said, but affects people in vastly different ways and can cause death.

Fentanyl, an opioid that's about 50 times stronger than heroin, has been driving an increase in overdose deaths in the state. 

Campbell said police have sent more samples for testing.

‘This crisis impacts all of us’

When New London Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein heard the news, she was reminded of New London’s own K2 outbreak, in which 14 people overdosed during a two-day period that began July 19, 2017.

She said she called New Haven Mayor Toni Harp on Wednesday and offered to share resources and lessons learned.

“This crisis impacts all of us,” Milstein said. “We want to be helpful, given our own work. We had seven or eight people a day — much more limited than New Haven — going to the ER for K2 poisoning, sometimes the same person three or four times.”

“We pulled together an emergency meeting between city officials, the fire department, police, community providers, the hospital and the Homeless Hospitality Center,” she said, “then came up with a response. Within three weeks, we had reduced transports by 75 percent.”

Milstein said a combination of housing the homeless, getting those struggling with addiction into treatment and arresting suppliers contributed to the reduction.

Harp couldn’t be reached to comment on whether she’ll take Milstein up on her offer, but Harp said during a Thursday news conference that she hopes other cities can learn from the coordinated response New Haven employed during this week’s outbreak.

New Haven police, meanwhile, have charged two men with distributing the drugs that led to this week’s overdoses. Felix Melendez, 37, and John Parker, 53, were arraigned Thursday afternoon in Superior Court in New Haven, The Hartford Courant reported.

Campbell didn’t release the men’s names during the news conference but said both have been convicted of selling K2 before and that at least one was giving the drugs away to get people addicted and build a customer base.

Dr. Sandy Bogucki, medical director of New Haven Emergency Medical Services, said people who used the K2 in New Haven this week “tended to go down very fast — almost right in their tracks” but weren’t affected for long.

“Although many had to be resuscitated ... they were able to be discharged very soon,” she said, “which meant they were able to return to the green to seek another high.”

Campbell said police, who have nearly doubled their presence downtown, also may pursue federal charges against the men.

“When you’re taking firefighters and paramedics off the street, the business doesn’t stop,” Fontana said. “We still have the rest of the city to deal with. The risk is huge, because folks who need first responders’ care may not get it quickly enough because so many resources are tied up on the green.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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