Tracking Opioid Overdoses in Real-Time to Save More Lives

A pilot program led by the Connecticut Poison Control Center and UConn Health’s Emergency Medicine Department has been tracking opioid overdoses in Hartford in real-time to improve surveillance of the opioid epidemic. The epidemic claimed over 1,000 lives in Connecticut in 2017, including 80 in Hartford.

The project, launched May 1, has emergency medical service (EMS) personnel in Hartford report overdose cases to the state’s Poison Control Center immediately after the incident.  The Center’s specialists in Poison Information ask the emergency responders a series of brief questions and record the data.

The test program is a collaboration by UConn Health’s Poison Control Center with American Medical Response (AMR) ambulances which provide coverage to two-thirds of Hartford’s communities, and nearby Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center’s Emergency Department.

“This new program is increasing our awareness of what is happening on the ground,” says Peter Canning, UConn John Dempsey Hospital’s EMS Coordinator. “The data gained will help us combat the crisis and rapidly intervene to save more lives.”

UConn Health hopes the program establishes an effective early warning system to alert public health and safety officials and community stakeholders of any sudden spike in overdoses or the potential threat of a potent batch of opioid drugs released in certain neighborhoods.

This May alone, the AMR ambulance crews in Hartford called-in to report 50 overdose cases to the Connecticut Poison Control Center. In June 48 overdose reports were received with 11 of those overdoses occurring within the two-day period of June 23-24. In 66 of the reported cases, emergency crews had to administer the opioid antidote Naloxone to revive the overdose victims.

A drug bag linked to an overdose case from this spring in Hartford (Photo courtesy of UConn Health EMS).
“Joker” drug bags linked to opioid overdose cases this spring in Hartford (Photo courtesy of UConn Health EMS).

Early data of the pilot program attributes 82 percent of the overdoses to heroin or fentanyl, 18 percent unknown, and 2 percent caused by oxycodone.  The majority of victims were male (67 percent) with 37 percent of males between the ages of 35-49.  In addition, 63 percent of the overdoses occurred in public areas such as city parks, roadways, sidewalks, and restrooms.

The program also asks EMS responders to report “brands” of heroin that may be linked to the overdoses.  Identified brand names linked to the overdose cases to date have included One Dab, Casino, Don’t Front, Joker, Donald Trump and Howl.  EMS also reported cases of victims thinking they were buying cocaine, but instead overdosed on powdered heroin.

This fall the pilot program will be expanding to include Aetna Ambulance Service in the south end of Hartford.

“This new program is an important step forward and a great example of multi-agency collaboration,” says Dr. Suzanne Doyon, medical director, Connecticut Poison Control Center in the Department of Emergency Medicine at UConn Health. “Rapid real-time identification of potentially troubled areas of the State is important to public health.  Using the connectivity and round the clock expertise of the Poison Control Center is both novel and forward thinking.”

Doyon adds: “We hope this becomes the model for reporting statewide.  The ultimate goal here is to reduce overdoses and save lives.”

“St. Francis felt this project was extremely important to gather real-time accurate data and then to be able to act on that data to save lives,” shared Dr. Steven Wolf, chairman, Department of Emergency Medicine at St. Francis Hospital and Medical Center who is also an assistant professor of emergency medicine at UConn School of Medicine.

Principal collaborators of the project include: The CT Poison Control Center’s Dr. Suzanne Doyon, director, Dr. Charles A. McKay, associate director, Bernard Sangalli, M.S., administrative director, and Elizabeth Laska, R.N.; the UConn Health Emergency Medicine Department’s Dr. Richard Kamin, EMS Program Director and Peter Canning, paramedic, R.N., EMS Coordinator; Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center’s Dr. Steven Wolf, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine; and American Medical Response’s Chris Chaplin, paramedic and operations manager.