FARMINGTON - Fentanyl, a drug 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, is driving up the number of accidental overdose deaths, according to figures released Thursday by the state’s chief medical examiner.
Connecticut saw a 25 percent jump in overdose deaths from 729 in 2015 to 917 in 2016, according to Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill. “Deaths involving fentanyl (479) increased by 155 percent and nearly surpassed the number of deaths involving heroin (504),” Gill said.
Gill announced the figures while giving testimony to the General Assembly’s Appropriations Committee Thursday. The increase in overdose deaths has in part taxed his office to the point where medical examiners are conducting more than 325 autopsies a year, he told the committee. Gill is asking the state for funding for two more examiners at a cost of $190,000 each to help reduce the workload. His office recently lost accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners due to staffing shortages created by state budget cuts.
Gill is expected to release more complete numbers related to accidental overdoses in 2016 today.
State officials said earlier in the week that the increase in the number of fatal overdoses doesn’t necessarily mean that more people are using opioids based on the number of people seeking treatment in 2016 which was down from 2015. Other factors including the potency of the opioid and the timeframe when someone uses also need to be considered, said a spokesperson for the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. People are more likely to overdose on an opioid immediately after a period of sobriety.
Gill said Thursday that it “seems that fentanyl is the main driver of the increase in these (the 2016) deaths. For example, we also have seen an increase in cocaine deaths but about half of these cocaine deaths also have fentanyl in their system.”
Area emergency responders are reporting an increase in overdoses. Bristol police attributed 23 deaths in 2016 to heroin or fentanyl or a combination of both.
New Britain EMS administered Naxolone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose, 148 times from May to December, said director Bruce Baxter. New Britain EMS administered Naxolone 138 times in the entire fiscal year that ran from April 30, 2015 to May 1, 2016, Baxter said. New Britain EMS does not track opioid deaths.
Lisa Backus can be reached at 860-801-5066 or Lbackus@newbritainherald.com.