Health officials: opioid epidemic could be worse than what state reporting shows

HARTFORD --  The opioid epidemic is ravaging communities across the nation including many in Connecticut.

However, some local health officials believe far more people may be suffering from opioid addiction than the state actually reports. This could mean the opioid crises is far worse than previously thought.

“The only word I could describe what it’s like to lose a child is, it’s human torture,” said Ginger Katz.

Katz lost her son, 20-year-old, Ian Eaccarino, to a drug overdose involving opioids more than two decades ago. She was shocked when doctors told her to lie about how he died.

“They told me to tell people at the funeral and at the wake to tell people that he died of an aneurysm or heart attack,” Katz said. “Because of the stigma and the shame.”

That stigma and shame makes is hard for health officials to understand the scope of the opioid epidemic.

That is why Katz founded the Courage to Speak Foundation, which works to prevent similar tragedies through education and creating a space for people to be honest about the opioid crisis.

Some other health officials believe another significant reason opioid addiction isn’t fully understood is because the state has only been counting overdose deaths – not survivors.

“Well we know how many people are dying, you don’t know how many people are in essence sick and overdosing,” said Town of Darien Director of Health, David Knauf.

Knauf said this is because an opioid overdose is not on a list of reportable diseases and conditions, which requires health professionals to report the cases to the state. Things such as sexually transmitted diseases, flu is one that’s reportable, he said.

Knauf, who also co-chairs the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health Substance Abuse Ad Hoc Committee, said opioid overdoses should not only be a reportable condition, but immediately reportable.

“If we’re having bad batches of drugs running through communities it should be immediately reportable so we can have an immediate response,” Knauf said.

“And this epidemic didn’t start in the last 10 years. It started before my son died,” Katz said.

Eaccarino died in 1996 after becoming addicted to heroin, cocaine and the opioid valium in college. Since then opioid overdoses have been rising steadily, claiming 1,038 lives in Connecticut in 2017, according to the state’s medical examiner.

Connecticut health officials have been measuring the severity of the problem by tracking the use of the opioid antidote Narcan. It was used over 4,000 times in 2017.

The downside is that state officials don’t track the identities of patients the Narcan is used on, which means they could count some repeat overdose patients multiple times.

Connecticut Department of Public Health Commissioner, Raul Pino said his agency has come up with a solution.

“We have developed a system that gives us the ability basically in real-time, very close to real-time, getting a first glance of what is happened in the ER, emergency rooms across the state,” Pino said.

He is referring to what’s called the syndromic surveillance system.

When it is fully operational in several months, it will track how many people are treated in the state’s 39 emergency rooms for fatal and non-fatal opioid related issues including, overdoses.

There are drawbacks, however.

For instance, the syndromic surveillance system will give patients an identification number that can only be used in each individual hospital instead of recording their identities.

That means you can have a person who goes to St. Francis one day and to Hartford Hospital another day, and the system may count that person twice rather than as the same person with two different opioid-related incidences.

Another problem with the syndromic system is that it will only use emergency room data, which will not account for people who never make it there. That’s why Knauf's co-chair, Plainville-Southington Director of Health, Shane Lockwood, said recording non-fatal overdoses is crucial.

“We can’t really develop a program without having a full scope of the issue,” Lockwood said.

“You’re going to have additional deaths,” Katz said. “It’s just going to increase.”

Knauf and Lockwood believe the only real solution is to add overdoses to the state’s list of reportable conditions. However, Commissioner Pino said there are privacy concerns.

“We have some concerns about how that information about an individual who has an overdose is going to be used.

Katz said the issue of privacy is what has kept too many opioid abusers in the shadows, including her late son.

“And I think we have to be honest and we need the numbers because if we have the numbers we will be able to get the funding to put out this fire.

Pino said the state is looking at other solutions that include using a phone app for first responders and a centralized computer system as ways to better record opioid overdoses. Pino also said the state has made progress in the fight against the opioid epidemic.

He said the number of opioid prescriptions has reduced by $100,000 a year. Pino also said the rate at which opioid deaths occur each year has stabilized.