More Calls to Fire Department but Fewer Are for Drug Overdoses

The dip in overdose calls comes as the department’s overall call volume and opioid-related overdose deaths continue to rise. The rise in opioid-related overdose deaths in New London mirrors statewide and national trends.

by Greg Smith, The Day, New London, Conn. / February 10, 2020

(TNS) — The New London Fire Department responded to an increased number of calls in 2019 but fewer drug overdoses, a downward trend that local emergency medical officials say is a sign they are gaining ground in the opioid epidemic battle.

The fire department released a year-end report that shows overdose calls have dropped every year since 2015 except for 2017 — the year the city experienced a wave of overdoses associated with the drug K2, a synthetic marijuana.

Overdose calls, not specific to any one drug, fell from 288 in 2015 to 179 in 2019.

The dip in overdose calls comes even as the department’s overall call volume increased and opioid-related overdose deaths continues to rise. The expected rise in opioid-related overdose deaths in New London mirrors a statewide and national trend associated with the use of fentanyl.

Overdoses are just a small part of the fire department’s busy workload.

The fire department responded to 7,326 calls overall in 2019, up from 7,220 in 2018, and included 5,954 emergency medical calls.

The top medical calls continue to be ambulance responses to people with general illness (898), breathing difficulties (613), intoxication (595), cardiac emergencies (559), psychological problems (532), and fall victims (409).

Fire Chief Thomas Curcio said medical calls dominate the time of the department. Part of the reason is demographics: The city hosts a hospital, has a large population of elderly and poor and is home to a variety of social services agencies whose patients are more likely to need medical transport.

It’s the reason Curcio said that along with attacking the opioid epidemic, the department is part of a newly formed Integrated Health Team that focused on follow-up care to reduce repeated use of the emergency medical system by not only substance abuse and mental health patients, but people with barriers to accessing health care.

The goal is an overall reduction of repeat transports to the hospital.

Curcio said there are some people transported by ambulance to the hospital up to 20 times in a single month. Frequent transports include people with substance abuse and mental health issues but also an increasing number of the elderly, he said.

“We have an aging population, and what we’re seeing this year is a lot more elderly in need of help. We have hoarding situations and people that might not have family members or caretakers,” Curcio said. “The aim of the team is to quickly connect individuals with follow-up services.”

Ronald Kersey, the manager of EMS services at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital, said there are people without insurance, with a language barrier or with special health care needs.

“Sometimes people don’t know how to get into the system,” Kersey said. “The good news is New London is doing a good job in mobilizing resources.”

The Integrated Health Team comprises members of the L+M Hospital’s emergency department management staff, psychological clinicians, New London Fire Department, Ledge Light Health District and Mobile Outreach.

Human Services Director Jeanne Milstein, whom Curcio called a “godsend,” has been at the center of the effort, which includes tracking patients for follow-up care.

Milstein said the approach to getting people connected with care is multi-faceted and involves not only health care but supportive and stable housing, workforce re-entry, reconnection with family, educational pursuits and installing a “feeling of self-worth.”

“We have a well-oiled machine and are proud of the collaborative efforts we have with the first responders, health care, hospital and state agencies such as the Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services,” Milstein said.

The state Office of Chief Medical Examiner is expected to release 2019 numbers of opioid-related overdose deaths later this month. Projections based on six months of data show the statewide deaths increasing from 1,017 to 1,088.

Milstein said, “We’re not on the downside of the epidemic,” but remained optimistic that the city’s ability to quickly access treatment and connect patients with recovery support services is paying dividends.

g.smith@theday.com

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©2020 The Day (New London, Conn.)

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