RI sees significant uptick in fatal overdoses amid ongoing pandemic


PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) ─ The state is currently seeing a spike in COVID-19 deaths, but it’s not the only affliction that’s killing Rhode Islanders.

New data from the Rhode Island Department of Health reveals the state has seen a sharp increase in accidental drug overdose deaths throughout the pandemic.

Between January and July of this year, the Health Department reports there were 233 accidental drug overdose deaths, which is a a 33% increase from the same time period last year.

“Sadly, the drug overdose crisis is worse now than it ever has been,” Rhode Island Department of Health Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said.

Alexander-Scott said the state is on track to have 25% more overdose deaths than in 2016, when Rhode Island hit its previous peak.

“The stressors and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly contributed to these numbers, but we also started seeing increases in the first three months of the year before COVID-19 significantly changed the way that we lived,” she said.

Rhode Island Department of Health Medical Director Dr. James McDonald tells 12 News there are several factors contributing to the troubling trend.

“We’ve had the overdose epidemic going in Rhode Island for years, but when you have two epidemics colliding, that’s called a ‘syndemic,'” McDonald explained. “Basically, it’s these linked health problems that act synergistically and make each other worse.”

McDonald said even though the world has changed, the drug supply was never interrupted. He said more people are buying counterfeit pills off the streets, most of which contain illegally-made fentanyl.

“I know from my counter parts in law enforcement, that one out of six of those, has a lethal dose of fentanyl in it, that’s disturbing,” McDonald said. “That’s what’s driven a lot of our deaths. There’s just too many substances out there.”

McDonald implores everyone to change their mindset about Rhode Islanders struggling with opioid addiction.

“I think we have to look at it this way: we have to control what we can control,” McDonald said. “There are some things in life we can’t control. You can control right now, how you think about opioid-abuse disorder, and my hope is, you accept these people who are patients and need help.”

Alexander-Scott took time during Gov. Gina Raimondo’s daily coronavirus briefing Wednesday to remind Rhode Islanders that there are designated fire stations in Providence, Newport and Woonsocket where those struggling with opioid addiction can begin their road to recovery.

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