Norwich sees fewer fatal overdoses in first half of 2018

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Norwich — The city saw eight fatal overdoses in the first half of this year compared to 19 in the first half of 2017 — a number officials hope will keep dropping as they introduce new programs to fight addiction.

“Obviously any trend downward is great,” city Human Services Director Lee-Ann Gomes said of the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner’s latest numbers. “I feel we have been working hard to improve the numbers, so I’m happy to see that.”

Since 2016, the city has formed a heroin task force, gotten a $552,000 Partnership for Success grant and created a multifaceted awareness campaign to target the problem.

Gomes said Reliance Health Inc., a nonprofit that champions mental wellness, recently partnered with United Way of Connecticut to provide a citywide recovery coach for six months. The coach, who can help up to 30 people at a time, connects residents with treatment and then continues to work with them, offering access to basic needs, advice and/or friendship.

The coach was working with 27 people as of Friday morning, Gomes said.

Recovery coaches already work with the William W. Backus Hospital but patients must request a coach and the coach, who works on call, must respond within two hours, Gomes said.

“We’re hoping to give people access to the coaches before they overdose,” she said.

The state Department of Public Health said Backus and Lawrence + Memorial Hospital saw a total of about 60 overdose visits per month this spring. More recent data wasn’t available and neither was a breakdown by hospital.

In a recent presentation to City Council, Gomes and her colleagues said police had administered 38 doses of the overdose-reversing drug Narcan within the past three months.

Gomes said the city is seeking $20,000, possibly through a grant, to fund the coach for another six months.

Those who want recovery coach services through Reliance Health can call 211, a 24-hour hotline organized by United Way.

Christine Goracy, who coordinates the city’s Partnership for Success grant, said officials soon will assess middle school students to determine whether they have a high risk of becoming addicted. Goracy said the 10- to 15-minute standardized screening asks students about their current drug use but not about more complicated issues such as family history of addiction.

Goracy said students who show up under the influence of drugs or who get into trouble with police will be prioritized until enough administrators, nurses and social workers are trained on giving the assessment.

“The reason we’re targeting middle school is because that’s when you start to see signs of potential addiction,” she said.

Goracy said Norwich Free Academy also has agreed to have athletes take a short course called Life of an Athlete, which provides information and guidance about alcohol and drug use.

Many former athletes have become addicted to drugs after getting opioid pain medications for their injuries, countless stories in The Day and other publications have shown.

“The course talks about the progression” from prescriptions to harder drugs, Gomes said. “I think it’s brilliant to get that information out there early.”

Most other local municipalities saw slight drops or remained steady in terms of fatal overdoses.

In Groton, where eight people fatally overdosed in the first half of this year compared to seven people in the first half of 2017, officers continue to refer people to Community Speaks Out, a nonprofit that helps people find and secure treatment.

Chief Louis J. Fusaro Jr. said fentanyl, an opioid that’s 50 to 100 times stronger than heroin, remains a problem. The chief medical examiner’s data show 370 of the 515 people who died by overdose in the first half of this year, or 71.8 percent, had fentanyl in their systems.

Fusaro said polydrug use, or the practice of taking multiple drugs at once, also is an issue.

“The epidemic continues to be a problem,” Fusaro said, “and we can’t arrest our way out of it.”

l.boyle@theday.com

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