(WTNH) — The number of accidental drug deaths in Connecticut reached a record-breaking high for the fifth year in a row with drugs like fentanyl skyrocketing in popularity, according to a report released Friday by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, abbreviated as OCME.
Connecticut Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill said 917 people in Connecticut died from accidental drug deaths in 2016, exceeding his own projected estimate of 888 deaths. This is a 25 percent increase from the 729 that died in 2015.
“The rising numbers especially as of late especially in Connecticut suggest that we’re at the peak of an epidemic here…solving this crisis is going to involve a community effort…health care and a legislative effort,” said Julianne Hall, an associate professor of medical sciences at Quinnipiac University.
Opioids like heroin and fentanyl are largely responsible for the continued increase in accidental drug deaths. Fentanyl, a powerful opioid, is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent. It is typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery, but over the past few years it has been increasing misused for recreational purposes.
In 2016, 497 of the accidental drug intoxication deaths involved fentanyl. This a 155 percent increase from 2015 and an astounding 3,321 percent increase from 2012 when just 14 people accidentally died due fentanyl or a combination of fentanyl and another drug.
In fact, overdoses involving fentanyl nearly surpassed the number of deaths involving heroin. The report from the OCME listed a total of 504 deaths involving heroin in 2016.
Gill disclosed these figures Thursday while testifying for a higher budget at the Appropriations Committee Meeting for the governor’s budget for 2018-2019. Recently the OCME lost their full accreditation earlier this February from the National Association of Medical Examiners, abbreviated as NAME.
The loss of the OCME’s full accreditation means that their decisions on cause of death are more likely to be challenged in court and family members will have to wait longer for the remains of loved ones to be released to a funeral home, according to Gill.
“The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is the only state agency that performs medical death investigations. We provide an essential core service and are bound by statute to investigate all deaths that are unexpected, suspicious or unnatural,” Gill said.
During the past three years, Gill said the OCME has faced a record number of deaths overall, not just deaths from fatal overdoses, and a decline in staff, causing delays in completing final death certificates and autopsy reports as well as overworked personnel.
“Since our autopsy numbers have increased 60 percent, approximately 900 additional autopsies over the past three years, we either need more medical examiners or need to do fewer autopsies,” Gill said.
However, fewer autopsies are not a possibility as Gill believes this would worsen public health and compromise death investigations. Even if the number of accidental drug deaths were to decrease, he said autopsy numbers are unlikely to significantly change.
According to a letter from Barbara Wolf, the chairman of the NAME Inspection and Accreditation Committee, the OCME has been downgraded to provisional accreditation and has until September 27, 2017 to either correct the deficiencies or lose full NAME accredidation altogether.