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Looking back at 2017: A new threat in opioid crisis

New Hampshire Union Leader

December 26. 2017 10:44PM
President Donald Trump touches the portrait of Adam Moser of East Kingston, an opioid victim who died in 2015. His mother, Jeanne, was holding the portrait during an October ceremony at the White House at which Trump declared the opioid crisis to be a national public health emergency. (REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque/file photo)

Editor's Note: As 2017 comes to a close, the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News take a look back at some of the top stories in a year marked by unspeakable crime, sex scandal, political milestones and business achievements. This is the third in a series spotlighting the year’s leading news events.

New Hampshire should have the first year-over-year decline in drug overdose deaths since 2012, but don’t kid yourself.

The opioid epidemic remained a top story and a tough-to-take personal tragedy that in some ways did reach new and even more frightening heights in 2017.

The new scare was carfentanil, an elephant tranquilizer that is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, the synthetic opioid responsible for the most drug overdose deaths in the state this year.

Federal agents had to wear head-to-toe protective clothing just to search locations for carfentanil because personal contact with just a fingernail full of it could be fatal, they said.

Catholic Medical Center President and CEO Joseph Pepe knew his emergency medical team was dealing with something very different when one day last April there were 10 overdoses in a single day.

In some of those cases, overdoses required five times the usual dose of Narcan, which is used to revive an unconscious addict.

“This is not just a flavor of the month kind of drug,” Pepe said. “This isn’t going to give you a good high; this is going to kill you.”

By year’s end, state officials said carfentanil had caused 12 deaths in New Hampshire.

That’s only about 3 percent of those dying from all drug overdoses but the appearance of carfentanil created great concern among authorities in the Granite State.

Law enforcement officials said the carfentanil incidents went way down once they arrested Preston Thorpe, 24, of Manchester late last spring.

A federal and state investigation had identified Thorpe as the dealer they believe was linked to the first three carfentanil deaths in the state — two in Manchester and one in Meredith.

A nationwide manhunt ensued. Investigators here found trace amounts of the drug in Thorpe’s apartment at 50 Sentinel Court.

While it was feared he had fled, Thorpe was found and arrested a week later, May 5, at a Manchester motel.

The New Hampshire Medical Examiner’s office estimates that drug overdose deaths, which hit an all-time high of 485 in 2016, should drop this year by 2.5 percent, to 473.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control issued a new report that found on a per-capita basis, New Hampshire had the third-highest rate of drug overdose deaths in 2016, 39 out of every 100,000 people in the state.

Only West Virginia and Ohio had higher rates, according to the CDC.

Meanwhile, other reports said New Hampshire’s death rate was the highest in the country from synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. In West Virginia and Ohio, many more deaths were due to heroin overdoses.

New Hampshire’s fenta­nyl overdose death rate was twice as high as West Virginia. Dartmouth College was conducting research through much of 2017 into the variety of factors that made this state such an attractive market for the drug.

Safe Station

Meanwhile, elected leaders across the ideological spectrum roundly criticized the largest source of federal money to fight the epidemic, the 21st Century Cures Act.

The federal law adopted last year gives out grants based on population, and not on how big the problem is in each state.

President Donald Trump credited his overwhelming win in the 2016 first-in-the-nation primary here to his commitment to doing something about the opioid epidemic after he called New Hampshire a “drug-infested den.”

Manchester Fire Chief Dan Goonan was invited to the White House twice in a month to attend a roundtable with First Lady Melania Trump on the epidemic and then to watch Trump sign documents that declared the epidemic a public health emergency.

“I know we’re known for being a place that is ravaged by this plague. I want to be remembered as the place that tackled and won this battle,” Goonan said during a recent interview.

Several communities across the state adopted Manchester’s Safe Station model, which gives addicts who walk into fire stations a place to get emergency help without being prosecuted.

Chris Stawasz, regional director for American Medical Response Inc., said Safe Station was a chief contributor to the 30 fewer overdose deaths in Manchester this year.

Future concerns

This year also brought alarming findings about the incidence of infants born with symptoms of opioid addiction known as neonatal abstinence syndrome. The University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy with New Futures found cases jumped five-fold over 10 years.

A bipartisan pair of state senators got behind legislation in 2018 to devote $1 million in state dollars for counseling and other services to the affected families.

And in the closing weeks of the year came a reminder of the challenges that substance abuse treatment services face in this state, something advocates say contributes to the seriousness of the epidemic here.

Charitable Trust leaders confirmed Serenity Place had run a deficit of more than $600,000 since last July 1.

State officials took over the treatment center, which had greatly expanded over the past two years, and placed it in the hands of Families in Transition. The Manchester charity will run it for six months.

Coming Thursday: The razor-thin results of the 2016 election are but a memory, but Thursday we look at how the passionate search for voter fraud in New Hampshire — fact or fiction — dominated the political landscape in 2017.

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