Rhode Island’s drug overdose deaths fall for first time in five years
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Rhode Island’s drug overdose deaths fall for first time in five years

The number of fatal drug overdoses in Rhode Island fell for the first time in five years, according to data released Wednesday by the state Department of Health, a decline that has been seen in other New England states.

Overdose deaths in Rhode Island fell about 7 percent last year. In Massachusetts, overdose deaths fell 10 percent last year; Connecticut saw an 8 percent drop. Nationwide, overdoses fell 3 percent.

Opioids and fentanyl continue to fuel Rhode Island’s overdose epidemic, the state Department of Health reported. Last year, 85% of overdoses involved opioids; 78% involved fentanyl specifically.

State data show that in Rhode Island, more than half of fatal overdoses (58%) also involved cocaine.

The mix of fentanyl with stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine is what experts are calling the “fourth wave” of the nation’s opioid epidemic. The mix poses a challenge to efforts to reduce overdoses because many stimulant users don’t know they’re at risk for taking opioids. And people who consider themselves stimulant users are less likely to take overdose precautions or enroll in addiction treatment programs designed for opioid users.

The overdose death rate among black Rhode Islanders fell 11% in 2023, while the rate for whites remained about the same as in previous years. The decline comes after a nearly 50% increase in the overdose rate among black Rhode Islanders from 2021 to 2022. The overdose rate among black Rhode Islanders remains higher than among white or Latino Rhode Islanders.

Rhode Island’s drug overdose deaths fall for first time in five years

Black Rhode Islanders who overdosed were less likely to receive treatment for their substance use than white or Latino residents, according to state data presented at a meeting of the Governor’s Overdose Prevention Task Force on Wednesday. About 84% of black people who died of drug overdoses between January and June 2023 had “no evidence of treatment,” the state said, compared with 74% of Latino people and 70% of white people, the data showed.

The persistent racial disparities in overdose deaths and addiction treatment need more attention in Rhode Island, Monica Tavares, co-chair of the Overdose Task Force, said at the meeting. “We’ve been working and trying to advocate for several years to make treatment accessible for stimulant use,” which affects people of color, she said. “And we really need to start taking action.”

Woonsocket had the highest rate of fatal overdoses last year, as it has in previous years, followed by Providence, Pawtucket, East Providence, Cranston and Warwick.

“We are working in every city and town across Rhode Island to make life-saving resources available in the areas of prevention, treatment, harm reduction, emergency response and recovery,” Dr. Jerry Larkin, the state’s new health director, said in a statement. “Every overdose death is preventable. Recovery is within the reach of every person living with the disease of addiction. We must continue to come together as families, as communities and as a state to continue to reduce drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island.”

The decline in fatal overdoses comes as the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone, known as Narcan, has increased in availability. In Rhode Island, naloxone is distributed by nonprofits in homeless camps and at Kennedy Plaza in Providence. And last March, Narcan became available over the counter at pharmacies nationwide

All New England states saw declines in fatal overdoses in 2023. The declines (from largest to smallest) were:

Maine: 16.2%

New Hampshire: 11.7%

Massachusetts: 9.8%

Connecticut: 8.3%

Rhode Island: 7.3%

Vermont: 4.1%

US: 3%

Health reporter Lynn Arditi can be reached at [email protected]