[Excerpt from front-page article by Cris Villalonga-Vivoni, New Haven Register, Sunday, April 14, 2024]

The rate of fatal overdoses in New Haven is about three times higher than the statewide average and has been sharply increasing since 2020, a new report found.

A combined 154 residents across New Haven, Hamden, North Haven, Woodbridge and Bethany died from an overdose in 2022, marking a record high for the area and exceeding the previous year's death count of 147, according a report done by DataHaven in partnership with the New Haven Health Department and the Quinnipiack Valley Health District, which covers the other four towns.

The new report provides an updated look at drug overdoses, harm reduction efforts and addiction treatment options in a specific region of Connecticut. Senior Research Associate at DataHaven and lead author Kelly Davila said the new report is a follow-up on a 2021 study in the same five-area region but provides a more granular approach. [....]

In 2022, the report found 124 overdose deaths in New Haven, 20 in Hamden, six in North Haven, four in Woodbridge and none in Bethany. According to the report, there were an estimated 788 unintentional overdose deaths between 2015 and 2023, with 602 in New Haven, 124 in Hamden, 44 in North Haven, 9 in Woodbridge and 8 in Bethany.

The report found an average of 10 nonfatal overdoses occurred for every fatal one between 2018 and 2022. This is about 5,504 nonfatal overdoses. [....]

About 87 percent of overdose deaths in the region involved opioids as of May 2023, 79 percent involved fentanyl, 48 percent involved cocaine, 26 percent involved alcohol, 13 percent involved xylazine, and 6 percent involved heroin, according to the report.

The new report also highlighted changes in the racial demographics as the overdose death rates for white people dropped below those of Black and Latino people, statewide and regionally.

Davila said one aspect DataHaven couldn't fully explore in the original 2021 report was the social determinants of health associated with high rates of overdoses. 

Contributing structural barriers

Defined as "structural drivers" in the report, she said these are often systemic problems and "upstream challenges" that lead to addiction, such as financial insecurity, community dissatisfaction and poor overall health. 

The report notes that the "legacy of racialized policies" explains why Black, Latino and other people of color often face disparities in the various social systems, like school and the workplace.

The report found New Haven's Hill neighborhood experiences both high rates of overdose and higher rates of financial insecurity and overall fair or poor health. It found Hill residents also experience high rates of food and housing insecurity and community distrust.  [....]

Offering harm reduction services and establishing wraparound services are a few of the efforts being made at the local and national levels to lower the number of fatal overdoses.

Davila said training and access to naloxone, an opioid reversal medication, may have resulted in more bystanders stepping in on overdose emergencies. 

Since being approved for commercial sale by the Food and Drug Administration in 2023, there are about 700 pharmacies in Connecticut, including 51 in the report's area, with staff qualified to sell naloxone and teach customers how to use it. 

Local health departments regularly provide free naloxone and training to residents. Eleven health departments from across central Connecticut hosted simultaneous free training with Narcan, a commonly used naloxone brand, and handed out kits as part of "Save a Life Day" in April for National Public Health Week. Both New Haven and the QVHD participated in the day. 

Another effective harm reduction effort involves syringe distribution service programs, which provide residents with free items that would help reduce health risks relating to drug usage, such as clean syringes and needles and fentanyl drug test strips. 

About 23,000 fentanyl test strips, 12,000 crack kits and 6,000 naloxone kits were provided to clients in the Quinnipiack Valley and New Haven health districts between 2017 and 2022, DataHaven reported. 

With the increased access to harm-reduction items and public education on opioids, the new report found that bystanders administered naloxone in 81 of the 554 calls made to first responders involving an overdose between July 2021 and 2023. 

"I would like to think that those naloxone kits being administered through those free distribution services, and the number of bystanders administering naloxone are probably intertwined," Davila said. [....]

New Haven Health Director Maritza Bond highlighted several local initiatives to expand prevention efforts, such as the city's efforts to hire outreach workers and launch a streamlined data surveillance program across six health departments. 

"This report further highlights the drug overdose crisis we're seeing every day in our communities," Bond said in a press release. "Losing 154 lives across the region in one year is heartbreaking. Now more than ever, we must remain steadfast in our efforts to continue using evidence-based interventions to save lives while also testing new approaches…We want to make sure no stone is left unturned in the next phase of our work as a region."