Monthly overdose deaths break record in Delaware

Delaware health officials say a record number of overdose deaths appear to be linked to fentanyl. (File photo)

Delaware health officials say a record number of overdose deaths appear to be linked to fentanyl. (File photo)

More people died in August of suspected drug overdoses in a single month than ever before in Delaware, according to the Department of Health and Social Services.

Last month, 39 fatal overdoses were reported, eclipsing the previous record of 27 that occurred in April.

Twenty-seven of the August deaths were in New Castle County, nine in Kent County and three in Sussex County.

Health officials are concerned the spike may be due to an increase of fentanyl-laced drugs in Delaware. The synthetic painkiller is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.

The state announced the new high mark for overdose deaths one day after Gov. John Carney signed a package of bills that aim to address Delaware’s debilitating heroin epidemic.

“We do need to help people using substances to understand they should assume every drug they’re taking illicitly has fentanyl in it, whether it be a Xanax to an opioid or heroin, and really getting that message out, because the first step is we want to prevent people from dying,” said Elizabeth Romero, director of the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.

“And the second part is looking at how we can get more people to access treatment services so we want them to know there is help and how do we get them navigated to treatment.”

Fentanyl, which affects the central nervous system and the brain, can stop a person’s breathing as the drug takes hold. In 2017, about 61 percent of the overdose deaths in Delaware involved fentanyl.

Last year, 345 people died of overdoses in Delaware — a 12 percent increase from the previous year. As of last week, the state reported 202 deaths in 2018 from suspected overdoses. Due to a lag in toxicology analysis, the actual number of fatal overdoses could be higher.

Dave Humes of aTAck Addiction said he’s horrified by the numbers, but not surprised.

“I think until we get a handle on stopping the fentanyl I think it has a possibility of getting worse. The fentanyl is synthetic, so it can be made within our borders, and the drug dealers are evil, so I think it’s going to go up before we stop the number of deaths,” he said.

“There are more and more people who are now engaged who are looking at it as the crisis it is and the more bodies we have and foot soldiers to address it and have greater sense of urgency the greater chance we have of stemming these deaths, and I’m optimistic we’re going to do this—we didn’t get into this overnight and we’re not going to get out of it overnight.”

Humes said the new laws enacted Monday are an example of the good work being done in the state, but would like to see even more urgency.

“I would like to see the attention paid to it become greater and be a top priority within the state,” he said. “We’re trying to do things right, but we should do them more quickly, I would like to think, so we can start to get a handle on this.”

Romero said the state is looking at ways to spot trends and hot spots and expand access to naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication that has saved thousands of lives. However, she said she epxects that this year’s overdose fatality rate will likely surpass the 2017 figure.

“We’re grateful we’re able to get more naloxone out there because without it we’d have seen even more deaths,” Romero said. “Obviously we would like to see the death numbers decrease and we’re doing what we can to tighten up those navigation points and identify those opportunities to get people into treatment and make sure we’re able to navigate them to the help they need.”

In New Castle County, the 24/7 Crisis Services Hotline number is 1-800-652-2929. In Kent and Sussex counties, the number is 1-800-345-6785. Individuals and families also can visit the Department of Health and Social Services website, www.HelpIsHereDE.com, to find addiction treatment and recovery services in Delaware or nearby states.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.