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Connecticut Drug Overdose Deaths Climb During Ongoing Pandemic

Nicole Leonard
Connecticut Public Radio
Liany Arroyo, director of health for the city of Hartford, speaks about rising drug overdose deaths during the pandemic outside InterCommunity Health Care’s recovery house for men and women Tues., Aug. 25, 2020.";

Connecticut legislators and health experts in Hartford Tuesday stressed that the number of opioid overdose deaths is up statewide. Evidence, they say, that the pandemic is interfering with addiction treatment and recovery.

“When we were doing our work in preparation for the pandemic, there was a lot of focus on children, on seniors, and on our individuals who are experiencing homelessness,” said Liany Arroyo, director of health for the city of Hartford. 

“But there wasn’t a lot that was out there about how do we deal with substance use disorder during a pandemic.”

About 647 people died from a drug overdose in the first six months of the year, according to new state data. It’s a jump of nearly 18% from the same time last year.

A majority of deaths involved the synthetic opioid fentanyl, which is 100 times more potent than morphine. Data shows that usage of that drug -- intentionally and accidentally -- is on the rise.

Arroyo said communities will need to overcome the pandemic’s hurdles in order to reach people struggling with substance use disorder before it’s too late and overdose deaths climb even higher.

“We’re preparing for what may be a second wave in the fall and we really need resources to do a better job, to do a job that is more proactive than reactive so that we can make sure that we’re taking care of everyone in our community,” she said.

Social distancing and measures to limit the spread of COVID-19 have been in place since March. Dr. J. Craig Allen, vice president of addiction services at Hartford HealthCare Behavioral Network, said a number of open and unfilled spots remain in detox and other treatment programs.

Part of that, Allen said, might be that people have become more reluctant to come to hospital emergency departments or enter inpatient treatment programs while the pandemic is ongoing.

But it doesn’t erase the fact that just as many people, if not more, may need treatment and support services right now, he said.

“The way people have been coping with stress and anxiety who may have gotten themselves into recovery from substance, those things are removed, their therapist may be removed, maybe the AA group or the NA group they were going to doesn’t meet in person anymore,” Allen said.

The pandemic has also exacerbated and created new funding shortfalls, said Kim Beauregard, president and CEO of InterCommunity Health Care.

“We have been here for over 48 years, we run the largest detox in Connecticut and we are at risk of having to close those beds due to financial issues,” she said.

U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who spoke Tuesday at InterCommunity’s recovery house for men and women, said this is where more aid from the federal government could help.

The CARES Act coronavirus relief package, passed earlier in the year, allocated about $425 million nationally to fight the opioid epidemic -- “a drop in the bucket,” Blumenthal said.

More funding for opioid prevention and treatment is proposed in the $3 trillion HEROES Act relief package, which the U.S. House of Representatives passed in May. The bills have stalled in the U.S. Senate, which is on break until after Labor Day.

“These folks and their teammates are the front-line workers in the fight against this overdose epidemic, they are the ones out there regardless of the threat of this virus to themselves,” Blumenthal said. “We owe them the resources that they need.”

Providers say they’ve adapted their services and programs as best they could in order to continue care for their patients while abiding by pandemic safety guidelines. But some organizations and programs have had to reduce hours, locations, patient load and close contact.

“The opposite of addiction is connection. Well, we’ve lost all connection,” said Mark Jenkins, founder and executive director of Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition. “We are the only means of that human connection that people sometimes need, if it’s just a little bit of hope at a time when there’s hopelessness.”

Jenkins said changes are needed going forward in order to get back on track for the opioid epidemic.

“The [overdose] numbers will continue to increase if we don’t begin to find ways and means to get some things open that were the traditional means that allowed these individuals to survive,” he said.

Monday is International Overdose Awareness Day. Vigils and remembrance events will be held in communities throughout Connecticut. Some of them can be found here.

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