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Rise In Conn. Drug Overdose Deaths Drives Need For More Funding And New Solutions

Joe Amon
Connecticut Public
A kit for protection from COVID-19 with masks, gloves, soap and sanitizer is passed out with new syringes at the Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition mobile RV site in Hartford on Aug. 11, 2020.

A $1.9 trillion COVID-19 aid package facing a U.S. Senate vote includes funding for states and local communities to tackle behavioral health and addiction after record-level drug overdose deaths nationwide in 2020.

At a virtual roundtable Monday with Connecticut addiction prevention and treatment providers, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal said he hopes additional money will help boost on-the-ground efforts. 

“But it is a trickle compared to the volume that we need, the resources that are necessary,” he said.

Connecticut substance use disorder experts early on warned that the COVID-19 pandemic could worsen the ongoing opioid epidemic and related fatal overdoses. Now almost a year into the pandemic, they’re finding that to be true.

State data show that by December, nearly 1,360 people died from a drug overdose in 2020 -- about a 13% increase from the previous year.

“With these numbers, we are kind of approaching essentially close to four accidental intoxication deaths a day,” said Dr. James Gill, the state’s chief medical examiner.

New and emerging substances like xylazine, an animal tranquilizer, Flualprazolam, a designer benzodiazepine, and Eutylone, a synthetic stimulant, are increasingly being mixed with other drugs and showing up in fatal outcomes.

“The illicit drug market is so corrupted and so volatile right now that it’s really dangerous,” said Robert Lawlor Jr., “and [I] think we need to spread the messaging that if you’re buying illicit drugs on the street, that is probably not what you think it is.”

Lawlor is a drug intelligence officer with the New England High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area under the Office of National Drug Control Policy. He joined others in the virtual meeting Monday to share ways in which the state may be able to prevent overdose deaths going forward.

Mark Jenkins, executive director of the Greater Hartford Harm Reduction Coalition, said the pandemic has made it harder to do outreach and programs in the same ways they did before.

Many providers have had to scale back in-person services out of coronavirus safety concerns for clients and staff, as well as logistical issues that stemmed from quarantine guidelines.

“If the opposite of addiction is connection, we’re doing anything but right now,” Jenkins said. “We’ve got to meet these folks that are active right where they are, and embrace them.”

Despite obstacles created by the pandemic, prevention and treatment programs have found ways to get medication-assisted treatment to people by way of mobile van delivery. Recovery coaches are connecting to overdose survivors by phone, health providers have leveraged telehealth to bring people care, and recovery support meetings are taking place virtually when in-person meetings aren’t possible.

Providers and advocates agree the circumstances aren’t ideal, but Maria Coutant-Skinner, executive director of the McCall Center for Behavioral Health in Torrington, said she hopes these strategies can prevent the addiction epidemic from getting worse while the COVID-19 pandemic continues, and after it ends.

“We’re setting the stage for lots of pain and suffering to come,” she said, “but we have an option right now in front of us where we can build really good prevention, forward-thinking upstream solutions so that those things don’t have to come to pass.”

Connecticut’s centralized adult crisis call center for mental health and addiction support and intervention services can be reached by calling the ACTION line at 1-800-467-3135 or 211. Action Line is supported by the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services and United Way of Connecticut.

Nicole Leonard joined Connecticut Public Radio to cover health care after several years of reporting for newspapers. In her native state of New Jersey, she covered medical and behavioral health care, as well as arts and culture, for The Press of Atlantic City. Her work on stories about domestic violence and childhood food insecurity won awards from the New Jersey Press Association.

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