Deaths from drug overdoses continued to rise in Connecticut during the first three months of 2016, according to new data from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
There were 208 overdose deaths in the first quarter. On average, about 2.3 people have died from drugs each day so far in 2016, up from two people per day last year and 0.9 people per day in 2012.
New Haven led the state in drug deaths with 24, followed by Waterbury with 20.
But those figures can be misleading since the data only lists city of death and not city of residence. That skews the results toward cities with major hospitals.
Since 2012 there have been slightly more overdoses on weekends than on weekdays — an average of 1.51 per weekend day compared to 1.43 per weekday — but the results aren’t statistically significant, which means they could just reflect random chance.
David Hartman, a spokesman for the New Haven Police Department, said he hasn’t noticed any relationship between day of the week and overdose frequency.
“A pattern may exist, but we’re not seeing it in terms of day of the week,” he said. “We’re not seeing it higher at one point or another of the year either. Not at the police level.”
Hartman said there may also be an uptick in overdoses in the first few days of each month, when welfare and social security checks typically arrive.
According to the data, the first 7 days of each month had an average overdose death rate of 1.51 per day, compared to 1.44 per day for the rest of the month, but these results were not statistically significant either.
The most drug-related deaths to occur on a single day was eight on Sept. 21, 2013.
The biggest jump in the first three months of 2016 was among deaths involving fentanyl, an extremely potent synthetic opioid that’s often used as a painkiller in hospitals.
The number of deaths involving the drug more than doubled in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same time last year.
“Fentanyl is the most dangerous [synthetic opioid] of all,” said Surita Rao, a psychiatrist at UConn Health who specializes in addiction. “It’s an extremely strong opioid pain medication, and it’s very fast acting.”
Rao said in the past, she only saw fentanyl use among doctors and surgeons who had access to it through their work in hospitals.
“But now, this extremely strong opiate drug is available to the public,” she said.
Between Jan. 1 and March 31 this year, 83 people died from drug overdoses involving fentanyl. Two hundred and eight people died from drug overdoses in general during that time.
Rao said that fentanyl, which is about 100 times more potent than morphine, is often mixed with heroin to increase its potency. But, she said drug users don’t always know what they’re getting.
“I think sometimes they know that they’re using fentanyl, but other times they might not,” she said. “When you buy something on the street, you just don’t know what you’re getting.”
Kathryn Hawk, a doctor and professor in Yale’s department of emergency medicine, said the unexpected potency of such drug cocktails can lead to higher rates of overdose.
“People use an amount [of drugs] similar to what they would use if it were just heroin,” she said. She said the increased potency can lead to overdose, and that higher doses of the overdose reversal drug noloxone are often needed for patients who combine heroin with fentanyl.
Overdose deaths have been on the rise across the country, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and this new data shows no signs that the trend is slowing in Connecticut.
Rao said one possible way to reverse the trend is to prescribe fewer opiates.
“The United States uses about 80 percent of the world’s prescribed opiates,” she said.
She said that by using other methods of treatment for patients in pain, the number of people who become addicted to opiates in the first place could be reduced.