Accidental overdose deaths in RI down 7.3% in 2023, first decline in four years • Rhode Island Current
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Accidental overdose deaths in RI down 7.3% in 2023, first decline in four years • Rhode Island Current

Fresh off the deadliest year in a decade for accidental drug overdoses, Rhode Island sees first glimmer of hope Numbers 2023 on drug-related deaths, published on Wednesday.

The 404 residents who died in 2023 from accidental drug overdoses, new data shows, represents a 7.3% decrease from 2022 and the first year-over-year reduction in fatal overdoses in four years.

“The needle is moving in the right direction, but we must continue to expand our multifaceted approach to save lives because we know addiction is a disease and recovery is possible,” said Richard Leclerc, director of the Rhode Island Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals (BHDDH) and co-chair Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Teamsaid in a statement.

Last year, a 32-person task force was established to take on Action plan which included reducing overdose deaths from 2022 levels by 30% by 2030, with an additional milestone of 12% fewer by 2025. The 404 deaths in 2023 are “significantly below” the projected 417 deaths for that year, suggesting that if the same downward trend continues, the state is on track to meet upcoming benchmarks, according to the health department.

Accidental overdose deaths in RI down 7.3% in 2023, first decline in four years • Rhode Island Current
Rhode Island will see a decline in fatal drug overdoses in 2023 for the first time in four years, according to new data released Wednesday. (Rhode Island Department of Health)

But the milestone was not cause for celebration among members of the group responsible for preventing overdoses and increasing education and treatment for addiction. Instead, took a serious tone as they discussed the latest statistics at a virtual meeting on Wednesday.

“We could do better,” said Thomas Joyce, co-chair of the task force. “Everyone deserves better.”

Black people still have a higher mortality rate

Of particular concern to commissioners and emergency responders was the disproportionately high percentage of black and Latino residents who continue to die from accidental overdoses and are less likely to seek early treatment.

Black residents had the highest rate of fatal overdoses relative to their population, with 47.9 deaths per 100,000 people in 2023. That’s down 11% from the previous year but still significantly higher than the death rates among white and Latino residents. However, the overdose rate among Hispanic and Latino residents increased by nearly 50% from 2021 to 2022.

Even more startling was the lack of treatment—past or present—among minorities compared with their white counterparts. While 72% of the 404 people who died from overdoses in 2023 never received treatment for their substance abuse, that figure rose to 84% among black residents and 74% among Latino residents. Fewer than 5% of those who died while receiving treatment were black, compared with 19% of deaths among non-Hispanic whites.

The municipalities with the highest rate of fatal drug overdoses — Woonsocket, followed by Providence — have a disproportionately high Black and Latino population, according to the data.

We need to be very strategic in order to reach the populations that are most impacted by this epidemic,” said Corinna Roy, deputy director of public affairs at the National Institute of Health. behavioral health unit at BHDDH.

We could do better. Everyone deserves better.

– Thomas Joyce, Co-Chair, Governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force

Not that the strategy has been put on hold. In recent years, government agencies and community partners have been working to increase education, awareness, and treatment while removing barriers that prevent access. This includes text message campaign at overdose points, warning about the risk of fentanyl contamination and offering access to free mail-order naloxone and training.

Opioids, specifically the illegal synthetic fentanyl, continue to reign supreme as the leading cause of overdose deaths, detected by toxicology tests conducted by the Rhode Island Office of State Medical Examiners and the state health laboratory in three of the four deaths that occurred in 2023. But the blame does not lie solely with illegal opioids; nearly two-thirds of the deaths in 2023 involved a combination of prescription and illegal drugs.

Most fatal drug overdoses in Rhode Island involve a combination of illegal and prescription drugs. (Rhode Island Department of Health)

Toxicology and autopsy reports shed light on the types of deadly cocktails, said Heidi Weidele, an overdose epidemiologist at the health department, but the data do not allow us to determine whether users were consciously combining substances or unknowingly taking an illegal substance mixed with something else.

The prevalence of drug contamination also suggests that at least some overdoses are not related to addiction or substance abuse. Stacey Levin, director of recovery housing at the nonprofit RICARES, shared anecdotal evidence that many people who overdose are not intentional opioid users.

“The drug supply is so contaminated,” she said, adding that medication-assisted treatment is not an option for this demographic.

However, for many people with opioid use disorder, FDA-approved medications such as buprenorphine, methadone, and naltrexone are the “gold standard” for treatment. Despite strong research suggesting their effectiveness, stigma keeps people with opioid use disorder from considering them, much to Linda Mahoney’s frustration,

Mahoney, an administrator in the behavioral health and substance abuse treatment program at BHDDH, was overcome with emotion when she delivered the news that a client she worked with had died, but the client declined her suggestion to try medication-assisted treatment.

“A common comment I heard was, ‘It didn’t work for my friend, so it won’t work for me,’” Mahoney said.There is so much stigma surrounding medication-assisted treatment. It’s ridiculous.”

Ending the stigma around drug use in favor of safety also inspired the nation’s first state-regulated overdose prevention center in Rhode Island. After being approved by legislators in 2021The state has partnered with community and clinical partners to open a dedicated location where people can use illegal drugs under supervision, with access to clean syringes and educational and treatment resources. 45 Willard Avenue Center in Providence is scheduled to open this summer.

“We have introduced many new interventions to address the dynamic nature of this crisis,” Gov. Dan McKee said in a statement. “We must continue to innovate and work with our partners in the community to continue to prevent overdoses. My heart breaks for every person who has lost a loved one to this epidemic. We owe it to the Rhode Islanders who have lost someone and their families to do everything possible to prevent more overdose deaths.”