The overdose death toll is rising in New Jersey, and experts say they don’t know when it will slow down.

New data from the New Jersey Office of the State Medical Examiner reveal that 2,221 people died from drug overdoses in 2016, up 40 percent from the year before. The majority of victims had heroin or fentanyl in their systems.

Several years into a heroin and addiction epidemic that has gripped the nation, state and county leaders have been working on solutions to bring the number of deaths down, including equipping law enforcement, first responders and community members with naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote.

But the increased presence of fentanyl, heroin’s stronger relative, has made saving people much more difficult, said county prosecutors and first responders.

Essex and Ocean counties had the highest number of deaths in 2016, at 271 and 253 people, respectively.

Drug deaths in Atlantic County more than doubled in 2016 from the previous year, going from 85 deaths to 171.

Atlantic County Prosecutor Damon G. Tyner said in a statement he hopes several county initiatives will, over time, significantly reduce drug-related deaths in the county.

As of September, the county required all law enforcement officers to carry Narcan, a brand of nalaxone. Investigators and prosecutors also indicted 11 people in the last year for homicide under the state’s strict liability of drug-induced death laws, Tyner said.

“This will send a chilling message through the community of those who deal drugs that if they take a life, they will spend the rest of theirs in prison,” he said.

Fentanyl, a narcotic intended for use in hospitals and care facilities by medical professionals to treat pain, has increasingly made its way into addicts’ hands. The number of overdose deaths involving the drug — 818 in 2016 — is five times higher than it was in 2014, according to state data.

For the first time, drug deaths that contained fentanyl analogs were tracked in a separate category.

State officials said they began tracking fentanyl analogs, or fentanyl-like synthetic opioids such as carfentanil, acetyl fentanyl, furanyl fentanyl and 3-methylfentanil, because of a surge in related deaths.

About 164 people died in 2016 with a fentanyl analog in their systems, according to the state Medical Examiner’s Office.

In 2014, Cumberland County had a single fentanyl-related overdose death. In 2016, there were 24 fentanyl-related deaths.

Prosecutor Jennifer Webb-McRae said due to the rising number of deaths and Narcan deployments throughout Cumberland and the state, communities must tackle the drug epidemic by both intercepting and prohibiting illegal drugs and promoting education, prevention and intervention.

“We can’t arrest our way out of this epidemic,” she said. “We have to build capacity in the community to address addiction as a health issue before it becomes a criminal justice problem.”

Cumberland County recently launched the Peer Recovery Coach Cumberland C.A.R.E.S. program, a collaboration among the Prosecutor’s Office, county law enforcement, the county Division of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services and the Southwest Council.

The program provides training, guidance and support for people struggling with addiction through peer-to-peer recovery mentoring.

Al DellaFave, spokesman for the Ocean County Prosecutor’s Office, said the amount of fentanyl circulating in the community has made preventing some overdoses more difficult, but he remains hopeful treatment and prevention services such as the county’s Blue HART program will lead to better outcomes going forward.

Preliminary numbers for 2017 overdoses and Narcan deployments indicate the county is already heading in that direction, DellaFave said. County officials recorded 163 drug-related deaths in 2017, down from previous year, and Narcan deployments dropped from 502 in 2016 to 333 in 2017, he said.

Final overdose deaths for 2017 have not yet been confirmed and released by the state Medical Examiner’s Office.

See the complete 2016 New Jersey Office of the State Medical Examiner’s Drug Related Deaths report in a PDF below.

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Contact: 609-272-7022 NLeonard@pressofac.com Twitter @ACPressNLeonard

Previously interned and reported for Boston.com, The Asbury Park Press, The Boston Globe

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