WOONSOCKET, R.I. (WPRI) — The Rhode Island Department of Health is taking a closer look at a flare in non-fatal drug overdoses in Woonsocket, a spike that could be caused by a “bad batch” of drugs.
The health department has been tracking non-fatal overdoses since 2015, when emergency rooms were first mandated to report any patients they treated for an overdose within 48 hours.
“It really has allowed us to have a close to real-time response to an emerging epidemic,” said Meghan McCormick, a public health epidemiologist who surveys the data daily.
In 2015, reports on non-fatal overdoses were being faxed into the Department of Health. It was 2016 when the process became streamlined, and by the following year, the department started sending what it calls “ROAAR,” or “Rhode Island Overdose Action Area Response” alerts.
Each week, McCormick and other members of her team meet to determine whether to send out a ROAAR to communities that have seen spikes in overdoses.
Health officials have divided the state into 11 districts and each has an assigned threshold of non-fatal overdoses based on population and historical data. When a district exceeds that threshold in a given week, they receive a ROAAR.
The alert comes via email and includes information on where the overdoses occurred and what resources are available.
The alerts allow the department to inform people like first responders and service providers in affected communities, and in turn, those workers might be able to tell health officials what they’re seeing on the ground.
In the past, health officials, like McCormick, only utilized data on overdose deaths, but because of delays in toxicology test results and the much larger number of non-fatal overdoses, the data on fatalities took longer to paint a limited picture.
Now, information that might not have been available until the following year is communicated to cities and towns within a week.
In Woonsocket’s case, the city exceeded its threshold eight times in the last 10 weeks. It’s this unusual trend that prompted health officials to convene a meeting of nearly 70 stakeholders Tuesday afternoon.
“When we see a pattern of increased overdoses in the state we don’t just worry about it, we have to do something about it,” explained the health department’s medical director, Dr. Jim McDonald.
“What we think is going on in Woonsocket right now is although people are using illicit drugs, the drugs they’re using isn’t always what they think they’re using,” he said.
Woonsocket’s threshold for non-fatal overdoses is four within a week. In Warwick it’s eight, and in Providence it’s 10. Some cities and towns are lumped together and have district-wide thresholds.
McCormick said authorities most frequently send ROAAR alerts to the district containing Pawtucket, East Providence, North Providence and Johnston. That district is followed by Providence, the district containing Cranston, West Warwick and Coventry and the city of Woonsocket. She said they send one to two alerts a week.
“Probably once a month we have a week that an alert isn’t going out anywhere in the state,” she said.
According to the health department, there were 1,561 emergency department visits for overdoses in 2018, down slightly from 1,679 in 2017. So far this year there have been 681 through May.
“There’s been a slight decrease in 2018, it might be a little bit of progress,” McDonald said. “This epidemic is rather humbling. Those of us who engage with it everyday worry about it every day, and try our best to deal with it every day and try to look for best practices and things that are going to make a difference.”
He added, “Rhode Island is making a little bit of progress. We’re encouraged by that but more ‘couraged’ than anything else because there’s a lot more work to do.”
McDonald and McCormick both say the alerts help keep lines of communication open and bring people together to determine what might be causing spikes and how they can be handled.
The health department says other states are now using Rhode Island as a model for their own, similar systems.
“This is the trend for the future,” McDonald said. “Public health has to be responsive, has to be agile, has to move quickly because the people in our community don’t want to read what happened a year from now in some stodgy textbook. What city leaders and community leaders want to know is what happened last week, and what can we do to prevent tomorrow from being a worse day than yesterday.”