Feb. 11—People on the front lines of the region's opioid epidemic see a glimmer of hope.
The number of fatal drug overdoses dropped sharply in New London County last year, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Public Health. It's a trend that local advocates say is an encouraging sign that the ongoing work to address the crisis ― saturating the region with the opioid-reversal drug naloxone, also known as Narcan, and connecting people with addiction services ― is having an impact.
Accidental overdose deaths ― more than 90% of which involve some type of opioid and more than 85% with fentanyl ― dropped in New London County from 125 in 2022 to 71 in 2023, state DPH data shows.
Norwich and New London, the two towns at the epicenter of the epidemic in eastern Connecticut, have both reported reductions in overdose deaths. In 2023, New London had 16 overdose deaths compared to 27 in 2022 and 40 in 2021. Norwich had 18 compared to 34 in 2022 and 26 in 2021.
While it is the second consecutive year that the number of overdose deaths has declined in New London County and statewide, Connecticut has averaged more than 1,400 overdose deaths a year since 2020, a nearly 300% increase from the 357 reported in 2012.
In Connecticut, a resident is more likely to die from an accidental overdose than a motor vehicle crash, the state Department of Public Health said.
Advocates working to combat the epidemic warn that the state's numbers on overdose deaths are preliminary and based on data collected by the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Jennifer Muggeo, director of health for the Ledge Light Health District, said she is encouraged by the preliminary overdose data but expects the numbers to go up as the medical examiner's office releases more data.
Muggeo said the drop in deaths is encouraging news.
"I think there are a lot of things that contribute to that, not the least of which is the increase in the use of naloxone and medication for opioid use disorder," Muggeo said.
Not only are first responders carrying naloxone, but overdose emergency kits are now appearing out in the community in places like New London, Groton, Norwich, Waterford, Griswold and Stonington.
As part of the multi-agency New London CARES (Coordinated Access, Resources, Engagement and Support) initiative, Muggeo said, one of the primary goals of LLHD has been to ensure naloxone and training on how to use it is available.
Ledge Light also coordinated with Alliance for Living and the city of New London to create a successful peer navigator program that started in 2017 that has individuals with lived experiences working in the community to steer people toward resources and addiction treatment.
Kelly Thompson, president and chief executive officer of New London-based Alliance for Living, said it's unclear how to attribute the drop in fatal overdoses but the collaborative work going on in the community clearly has had an impact.
"We know that our work is helping people. We know we are connecting people to treatment, housing and food. That they feel supported," Thompson said.
A similar initiative, the Recovery Coach program, started in 2018 in Norwich, where Michael Doyle, director of the Reliance House recovery coach program, said recovery coaches are out in the community ensuring that those people who need help are getting it.
Norwich reported 34 overdose deaths in 2022 compared to 18 last year.
Doyle credits the drop to successful collaborations with a host of agencies in the county tackling the problem and raising awareness that "these deaths are preventable." Those collaborations have led to funding to provide the opioid-reversal drug naloxone along with training for first responders, users and friends and families of users.
Despite the drop in overdose deaths, Doyle said hes not so sure fewer people are using drugs based on what he sees in the community.
Keith Torrey of Norwich has struggled with addiction for more than a decade, has been homeless and overdosed on fentanyl and nearly died on at least two occasions. The first time he overdosed was about a year ago, when he was using fentanyl at a hotel in New London and "woke up on a gurney at the hospital," he said.
Torrey, 48, said he has struggled with substance abuse starting at a young age and started using opiates when he was 26 and recovering from surgery. When the OxyContin he was using became too expensive he moved to heroin and later to fentanyl.
Torrey said he recently detoxed, attended Lebanon Pines for 90 days and is now living in a sober house in Norwich.
"It's scary out there," Torrey said.
He admits "it's like Russian roulette," when using fentanyl and recalls several close calls, including one time when a friend overdosed. There was naloxone in the house where the overdose occurred, and Torrey said it likely saved his life.
"I didn't think I was going to get him back," Torrey said.
Of the availability of Narcan, Torrey said, "We all know about it in the streets and how easy it is to get it."
Torrey credits advocates like Recovery Coach Ray Viens and St. Vincent DePaul Place Executive Director Jillian Corbin with helping to care for people in the community who are struggling.
Viens said he's out in the community on most days, providing help to many homeless individuals "scooping these people up on a regular basis. to make sure they get to the clinic."
Reliance Health helped distribute more than 500 naloxone kits in the community in 2023. That same year, Doyle said, first responders were called out to 146 overdoses. Of those calls, 60 patients received naloxone prior to the arrival of emergency medical personnel, and 59 of those 60 survived.
"Certainly we're still in a crisis, and I think there's never enough resources available to meet the need in our area for immediate services and longterm support for folks," Patrick McCormack, director of health for the Uncas Health District, said.
"I think these collaborations are making a big difference. I think the community is starting to learn who to trust and turn to for help. Nobody should be dying because of drug use. We should be supporting people, ensuring they have the resources to stay alive and get clean when they're ready," he said.