EAST PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — More people are dying from opioid-related deaths in Rhode Island, new data from the R.I. Department of Health shows.
According to preliminary data, more than 400 people died of an accidental overdose last year, which is the state’s highest total on record.
Of the 310 confirmed overdose deaths between January and September 2021, 88% involved an opioid.
Michelle McKenzie, co-chair of the rescue work group of Gov. Dan McKee’s Overdose Prevention Task Force, said overdose deaths were going down before the pandemic hit.
“Along with many other public health problems, COVID really exacerbated an existing issue,” she said, adding that it’s partly due to fentanyl being found in other drugs.
“Cocaine, crack, methamphetamine, pills … we are definitely seeing that people are being exposed to fentanyl when they don’t expect it and their bodies don’t have a tolerance for opioids,” McKenzie explained.
Naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug often referred to by its brand name Narcan, has been made available in communities across Rhode Island.
“No overdose has to be a fatal overdose,” McKenzie said. “An opioid overdose can be reversed with naloxone.”
The Health Department estimated that $1.6 million was spent on naloxone in 2020, with the money coming from a number of sources including federal grants, private funding and donations, which organizations can access to purchase the medication.
That’s more than double the estimated $790,000 spent on naloxone in 2019, but the estimate dropped to $720,000 last year, according to Health Department spokesperson Joseph Wendelken.
“There are a few reasons for the decrease in funding,” he wrote in an email to Target 12. “One significant reason is that there was a dip in supply, particularly in intramuscular naloxone. This was a national shortage.
“Also, URI had a SAMHSA grant for naloxone distribution to rural communities that ended in 2021,” Wendelken added.
Data from preventoverdoseri.org shows more than 8,900 naloxone kits were given out to Rhode Island communities in 2019, followed by roughly 12,700 in 2020 and 21,500 in 2021.
“The Health Department has contracts with different organizations to do naloxone distribution, and what they really focus on is organizations that address overdose hotspots,” McKenzie noted.
According to Health Department data, outside of Providence, Woonsocket had one of the biggest spikes in overdose-related deaths, from 10 in 2019 to 21 in 2020.
“We opened out of total necessity in part to serve the people who we know who are at risk for overdose in the community,” said Christa Thomas-Sowers, community outreach coordinator for Community Care Alliance.
Thomas-Sowers was referring to Safe Haven, a harm reduction drop-in center located in Woonsocket. The boots-on-the-ground effort came to life during the pandemic as a way to connect people in the community with naloxone, as well as other harm reduction products and recovery sources.
“The whole point of this program is to meet people where they’re at with compassion and some honesty about what got them there,” Thomas-Sowers explained.
From 2019 to 2021, Thomas-Sowers said more than 3,400 Narcan kits were handed out in Woonsocket.
And while the Health Department says there’s no way to really track how many lives have been saved by naloxone, Thomas-Sowers said she knows dozens of people who claim the medication saved their life.