Data compiled by the Rhode Island Department of Health’s (RIDOH) Office of the State Medical Examiners show the state saw a sharp increase in the number of accidental drug overdose deaths in the first seven months of 2020.
Between January and July 2020, the state tallied 233 accidental drug overdose deaths, compared to 185 during the same period last year, a 26 percent increase. The data showed that opioid-involved fatal overdoses rose by 33 percent. The RIDOH said that more Rhode Islanders died of drug overdoses during July than in any month since the state started tracking fatal overdose data.
Officials said that the stress and isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic are thought to be reasons for the increase. Researchers, the department said, call it a syndemic – the amplified result of two or more diseases that exist simultaneously in a community – in this case, the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid epidemic.
Other reasons for the increased overdose death rate include substance users using more than one drug at a time, counterfeit pills, and the presence of fentanyl in other drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine, and other substances.
“What underlies the diseases of substance use disorder and COVID-19 are factors in our communities that affect people’s abilities to be healthy and safe, such as housing, employment, education, and discrimination,” said Director of Health Nicole Alexander-Scott, MD, MPH. “While getting prevention and treatment resources into the community to prevent overdoses immediately, we need to continue working to address these larger structural issues. Every single overdose is preventable. There is help and there is hope for everyone who is living with the disease of substance use disorder.”
The data shows all Rhode Island cities and towns being affected, particularly Providence, Pawtucket, Warwick, and Woonsocket. In Warwick and Providence, fatal overdoses doubled in the first six months of 2020, while in North Kingstown and Scituate, the total number of fatal overdoses in the first six months of 2020 exceeded the total number of fatal overdoses in those towns for all of 2019.