More than 70 fall ill in suspected mass overdose near Yale University as drug deaths hit record high in US

Chris Graham
The suspected mass overdose happened in and around a park near Yale University - AP

More than 70 people have fallen ill in a suspected mass overdose near Yale University, an incident that underscored America's drug problem which has caused a record number of fatalities. 

The first cases were reported on Tuesday evening when emergency services attended three suspected overdoses of a virulent batch of synthetic marijuana at New Haven Green near the Ivy League institution in Connecticut.

Dozens more cases were reported over the next 24 hours, all close to the downtown park. Officials said on Wednesday night that the tally had reached 76, according to NBC News

Some victims were said to be unconscious while others were vomiting, nauseated or lethargic. There had been no fatalities but some patients were in a life-threatening condition. 

"Bodies are literally dropping all around me from suspected drug overdoses," said Mario Boone, a TV journalist at the park. "I've never seen anything quite this bad happening at once."

Dr. Sandy Bogucki, the city’s director of emergency medical services, said the large number of cases had put a strain on the city. 

Emergency responders were “sprinting from patient to patient in the park,” Dr Bogucki said, according to the New York Times. He said crews were transporting people more quickly than usual “just to turn the cars around and get them back out.”

A 37-year-old man had been arrested in connection with the cases, NBC reported. 

The overdoses were initially feared to stem from a batch of synthetic marijuana, also known as K2, or Spice, that had possibly been laced with an opioid.

“Whether it be a synthetic opioid or fentanyl, we are not sure at this time until we have confirmation on the analysis from the D.E.A.,” Rick Fontana, the New Haven director of emergency operations, said.

However initial tests found the substance to be pure K2 and did not contain any additives, NBC quoted officials as saying.  

The United States is grappling with a surging epidemic of opioid abuse - including painkillers like OxyContin and street drugs like heroin.

A new report estimated a record 72,000 Americans died last year from drug overdoses, a rise of around 10 percent, the Centres for Disease Control said on Wednesday. 

Drugs, particularly fentanyl, are now deadlier in the US than either HIV, car crashes or guns, the report said. 

Overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids rose sharply, while fatalities from heroin, prescription opioid pills and methadone fell, according to the C.D.C. estimates. 

In October, Donald Trump labelled America’s opioid epidemic a “public health emergency”, giving officials extra powers to tackle the crisis. 

However Mr Trump fell short of announcing a full “national emergency” – as he had previously suggested  - which would have meant new central funding.