Story by John Murray

Rushnee Vereen-Penix is a recovering addict and was on the Green in downtown Waterbury to help celebrate National Overdose Awareness Day on August 31st.

To say it was personal would be an understatement. Rushnee lost a brother, Chase Sinclair Thergood, one month ago when he overdosed and died in Bridgeport, CT. Chase was 31 and his organs were donated, and Rushnee said it was a positive that helped the family sort through their grief.

Chase Sinclair Thergood died of an overdose last month in Bridgeport.

Organ donations from overdose victims has seen a sharp rise the past several years, Rushnee said, and many are from victims 18 to 45 years of age. She said there were eight organs donated from her brother.

Rushnee is also one of six overdose response technicians working at the Waterbury Health Department, and her life has been very busy. In the past eight months there have been 473 Narcan deployments, 300 non-fatal overdoses and 62 fatalities.

“I’m in recovery,” Rushnee said, “and I’m honoring my brother today.”

Rushnee Vereen-Penix, left, and Vin Valdez talked to city residents on the Green during National Overdose Awareness Day.

Jackie Robertson works in the Prevention Unit at the Waterbury Health Department. “Waterbury is second in the state in fatalities,” he said. “A lot of the fatalities are from people living outside the city. They come in to buy drugs and overdose before leaving Waterbury.”

Robertson and Rushnee and their co-workers in the Prevention Unit often go to the “hot spots” to hand out Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

“We handed out forty kits today,” Robertson said. “Opioids are everywhere and they don’t discriminate by race or socioeconomic standing.”

Vin Valdez is a bear of a man and he also works doing outreach with the Prevention Unit. He asked everyone who came up if they knew anything about Narcan. Most didn’t.

Vin Valdez, right, and his boss, Samuel Bowens III

“When someone overdoses the first thing to do is call 911,” Valdez would inform visitors. “If their lips are turning blue, if they are making gurgling sounds and not waking up, it’s time to give them Narcan.”

Valdez showed visitors a container of Narcan, and it looked like a bottle of nasal spray bottle from the pharmacy.

“Give them one nice strong spray in a nostril,” Valdez said, “and rub their chest. If there is no response after two minutes give them a second dose in their other nostril. You can also do CPR while waiting for help to arrive.”

If someone has experienced a lethal dose of fentanyl the Narcan will only be effective for 60-90 minutes and they will need further medical attention. Doctors in an ER can administer more Narcan, and some individuals need up to six doses to get them through the overdose crisis.

“We have countless overdose hot spots in Waterbury,” Rushnee said. “There is 690 East Main Street, the park at River-Baldwin, MLK Park, everywhere on Hillside, and at people’s homes.”

The Prevention Unit discourages people from using drugs alone because, “you can’t Narcan yourself,” Rushnee said.

When the unit engages addicts in dialogue there is “no judgement,” Valdez said. “We tell them to be smart, to use fentanyl test strips and never use alone.”

Several of the Prevention Unit told the Observer that there is almost no heroin on the streets anymore, it’s all fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin. And two of the six overdose response technicians were called away from the Green to respond to overdoses.

Members of the Prevention Unit at the Waterbury Health Department on the Green.

When Cameron Breen returned to the Green he provided the Observer with some startling numbers about overdoses in Waterbury.

“We’ve had 300 non-fatal overdoses so far in 2022,” he said. “And 62 fatlities.”

There were 70 fatalities in 2021, and 94 in 2020, and 109 in 2019.

Breen said the explosion of fentanyl is driven by economics. Fentanyl is cheaper than heroin, 50 times more powerful, and it’s easier to get customers addicted and clamoring for more.

“Fentanyl packs more punch,” Breen said. “It’s business #101.”

There are stories going around the streets about marijuana being laced with fentanyl, and members of the Prevention Unit implored the public to use fentanyl test strips.

On August 30th the US Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about “brightly-colored fentanyl used to target young Americans.”

CNN reported, “The agency said it and its partners in law enforcement seized colored fentanyl and fentanyl pills in 18 states this month. The trend appears to be a new method used by drug cartels to sell highly addictive and potentially deadly fentanyl made to look like candy to children and young people.”

Bright-colored fentanyl pills have been seized all across America.

What is Fentanyl?

The Observer found some terrific information on a website run by Colorado’s 17th Judicial District Attorney’s Office. It said…

“Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is made in a lab from chemicals instead of from poppies. It is 50 times more potent than heroin and 100 times more potent than morphine. According to the DEA, 2 milligrams of fentanyl is generally considered a lethal dose for most people. This is equivalent to a few grains of salt.

Fentanyl was developed as a powerful pain relief drug for people with end-of-life cancers. In a medical setting, it can be administered via injection, patch, or lozenge. Clandestinely produced fentanyl is usually a powder added into other drugs (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine even marijuana) or pressed into counterfeit pills that can look like OxyContin, Percocet, Vicodin, Xanax, Alprazolam, Adderall, Ecstasy, Molly, or other pills/tablets.

Why is Fentanyl being added to street drugs?

Fentanyl is much cheaper to make than other opioids. It is also easier to smuggle because small amounts are very powerful. It is a lot easier to smuggle in a baggie of Fentanyl powder than kilogram bricks of other drugs for the same profit margin. In addition, it is highly addictive making individuals wanting/needing to buy more as they chase their first high.

Why would drug dealers add Fentanyl to drugs if it can kill people?

Because Fentanyl is cheap and so highly addictive, it creates a much greater profit margin. The occasional loss of one or two users are not detrimental to their bottom line because they know that another addict can be easily created.

People can also develop a tolerance for Opioids like Fentanyl requiring them to use more and more to get high. This causes drug dealers and cartels to make stronger pills with more Fentanyl. However, these stronger pills may kill newer users who have not developed such a tolerance. In addition, some dealers intentionally add deadly amounts to some pills because the death of a user is like an advertisement that that dealer has really strong drugs.

Finally, these drugs are being mixed and cooked in open air “labs” in rural parts of China and Mexico. These labs are not being run by individuals with an interest in quality control and scientific measures. They use large vats over inconsistent heating elements.

What can parents do about Fentanyl?

Address any underlying concerns that may lead to your child to take Fentanyl intentionally or unintentionally. Parents of Fentanyl victims often report that their children took a pill or other drug to try deal with issues related to sleep, anxiety, loneliness, or other emotional challenges.

Talk with your kids about Fentanyl. They likely know someone who has died from Fentanyl poisoning or overdose. Share concerns Fentanyl raises for you both. Don’t threaten but talk about risks and that even one pill from someone they trust can kill. A naieve mistake can be deadly.

Keep an eye on your kid’s backpack, room, car, or phone. Fentanyl is most often smoked using a pill crusher, small piece of tinfoil, lighter, and straw to inhale the smoke. Other items indicating use may be needles, small mirrors, scales, blotter paper, unlabelled candies, blue M-30 pills, Xanax “bars”, or other pills/tablets/capsules.

Be aware of what your child is doing on their phone. Pills and other drugs are now often purchased through SnapChat, Gaming Platform “chat” functions, and other dark web sites. Today, there are about 9,300 websites selling drugs illegally on the darkweb. According to the Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, ONE in FIVE teens have already tried prescription drugs illegally. The majority, 76 percent of these teenagers, buy these prescription pills illegally.

Check your kid’s phones for unusual words like Blues, Blueberries, Apache, China Girl, China Town, Dance Fever, Friend, Goodfellas, Great Bear, He-Man, Jackpot, King Ivory, Murder 8, Tango & Cash, f3nt, TNT, fluff, tabs, vikes, hydros, vitamins, ercs, or 30s. However, these “code” words change frequently so pay attention to any odd abbreviations or words.