The numbers have officials alarmed.
In the first two weeks of the New Year, 22 people in the state died from drug overdoses. That’s double what it was for the period last year.
And the numbers have Craig Stenning perplexed, because deaths aren’t clustered in a particular community, or representative of a single age group, as frequently the case.
“Usually it’s the younger and [now] we’re seeing it at all ages,” said Stenning, the director of the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals on Friday. Friday, Stenning joined Dr. Michael Fine, director of Health, and Lt. Robert S. Wall of the Rhode Island State Police at a press conference to highlight the issue and urge people who are abusing drugs to seek treatment. Fine reported that the ages of the deceased ranged from 20 to 62 years old and had come from 13 cities and towns from across the state; Kent Hospital reported five deaths from overdoses in the last month.
The numbers would also suggest that overdose deaths, which is reflective of overall drug abuse, is worse here than in many other parts of the country. But, according to data provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), drug overdose deaths have more than tripled nationwide since 1990, surpassing vehicle crashes as the leading cause of accidental deaths. Every day, 100 people die from drug overdoses, according to the CDC. Rhode Island is ranked 13th in the country for the highest overdose mortality rate, at an average of four a week.
According to information released by Warwick Police, the State Medical Examiners identified 646 drug overdose fatalities from 2009 through 2012. Captain Joseph Coffey said Warwick’s police and fire personnel responded to 59 drug overdoses between Jan. 1 and July 11 of 2013. Three of those were dead on arrival. He said the number of deaths could be higher because, “We’re responding to a medical emergency and we don’t know what happened to the person [after they were transported to the hospital].”
Speculation over the spike in overdose deaths ranges from a bad strain of heroin on the street to the widespread experimentation and mixing of prescription drugs. Coffey said the department has seen a surge in recent weeks but he could not correlate this to an increase in narcotics traffic.
The department and the Rhode Island Drug Overdose Prevention and Rescue Coalition are taking steps to address the problem. Coffey said the department will soon activate a 24-hour drug drop box at police headquarters, where people can leave no longer needed prescription drugs without any questions being asked or fear of having their names recorded. The department will weigh and properly dispose of the drugs.
Also, the coalition is planning a forum on opiate overdose in the Ocean State on Wednesday, Jan. 29 from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at the community room in Warwick Police headquarters. Four speakers will cover topics ranging from what people can do when they encounter someone who has overdosed, to measures to keep a family safe, the prescription epidemic and “Saving lives: The first step to recovery.” Coffey called drug abuse and overdose “a silent epidemic” that does not discriminate.
“It’s the rich and the poor. It definitely is without prejudice,” he said.
In the last two years, the Health Department has ramped up efforts to monitor and better control prescription drugs. Pharmacies now have the ability to share prescription data electronically to prevent a single prescription from being filled multiple times. The department has also highlighted the state’s Good Samaritan Drug Overdose Prevention Act that provides some legal immunity to those who call 911 to report drug overdoses, and to the availability of Narcan [Naloxone], an emergency antidote to opioid overdose, without a prescription at Walgreens pharmacies.
“It almost has an immediate effect,” said Dr. Peter Graves, chief of the department of emergency medicine at Kent. “It reverses any narcotic in the system.”
Graves explained that the common cause of death from an overdose is asphyxiation.
“When it [the body] stops the breathing, the brain cells start dying in four minutes,” he said.
Narcotics, he said, slow the respiratory system, but Narcan, which is available in different forms, quickly reverses the process. And, he noted, “It is available without prescription.”
Graves offered no explanation for the spike in overdose deaths, although he said there had been a similar increase about eight months ago.
He said the hospital is happy to partner with groups in any way possible to reduce the abuse of drugs. He strongly favors a drop box for unneeded drugs.
“Most people have all sorts of stuff in their medicine cabinet,” he said.