Heroin, opioid overdoses rise in R.I. as state works to combat crisis

The Rhode Island Department of Health unveiled new numbers earlier this month on the rise of heroin and opioid overdoses in the state during the first session of a six-part seminar on addiction and recovery. As of Sept. 2, there have been 142 fatal overdoses reported this year in the state, the majority of which have come from opiate variants, according to the Department of Health.

Deaths in Rhode Island due to drug overdose have doubled since 2009, partially due to users who transitioned from prescription pill abuse to cheaper, more accessible drugs, such as heroin, said Traci Green, professor of emergency medicine and epidemiology, who has been working with the state to address the drug crisis.

Michael Fine, director of the Department of Health, has “created this series for practitioners and the community-at-large,” said Green, who is helping Fine on the addiction seminar series. Fine “wanted to address addiction as a public health issue through greater medical attention,” Green said.

Following a surge of deaths early this year, Rhode Island has taken a number of measures to confront the statewide medical crisis. In February, the Department of Health  made an effort to increase the availability of Naloxone, an antidote delivered to counteract the effects of opioid in the event of a potentially fatal overdose. The state also now requires all police officials to carry Naloxone.

There have been 1,047 people in Rhode Island saved this year with Naloxone and an additional 250 lives saved in the emergency room without the drug’s use, according to statistics released by the Department of Health. But drug overdoses are still the leading cause of adult injury-related death in Rhode Island, far more than accidental driving fatalities.

In May, the State Senate passed three bills that aim to stem the increase of overdoses, including one requiring health insurers to cover medications designed to treat addiction. Around the same time, the Department of Health initiated a new partnership with the Bridgemark Addiction Recovery Services of Warwick to provide immediate treatment for residents battling addiction, the Providence Journal reported.

“The key is to have overdose kits and training available to users,” Green said. “We hope to be as efficient as we can in distributing supplies to people at risk.”

About 15.6 percent of Rhode Islanders use non-medical pain relievers, compared to  9 percent nationally. The state is ranked first in New England in non-medical pain relief drug users.

Gov. Lincoln Chafee ’75 P’14 P’17 has worked to stop the drug crisis in the state. He began the Department of Health’s first seminar by promising to coordinate with the other five New England governors to come up with possible solutions, the Providence Journal reported.

“We’ve seen a huge increase in the use of illicit drugs, according to the latest data,” Green said. “The trend of prescription pills such as oxycodone has been replaced by heroin and cocaine.”

Over the past year, there were two batches of heroin tainted with illicitly made fentanyl circulating in Rhode Island, which has accounted for a large number of recent overdoses, Green said.

“It’s not a matter of if, it’s when …for the next outbreak of a bad batch,” she said. “And it’s our responsibility to make sure people are prepared with the necessary training to save these lives.”

While Rhode Island has made significant inroads in reducing the number of fatal overdoses using Naloxone, the state is still struggling to prevent drug use and addiction.

Heroin and opioid usage is equally distributed by age and geography, countering what was assumed to be a primarily a problem among urban youth, according to the new data from the Department of Health.

“We’re hoping to come up with better ways to address this issue through looking at the statistics,” said Green. “Hospitals and medical practitioners now have to report overdoses within 48 hours so we can get more information.”

When asked about possible solutions to confronting the state’s drug problems, Green offered two plans that she said are currently in works.

The first option would be expanding the ‘Good Samaritan’ Law, which allows drug users to call for emergency help in the event of an overdose with legal protection, Green said. The law will expire in 2015 and currently excludes felons and parolees from the immunity protections, she added.

A second measure would be increasing training for people to deliver Naloxone and extending prevention programs to get more individuals addicted to drugs into treatment. “Users should have full, easy access to Naloxone and other countermeasures to save lives,” Green said.

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