- Associated Press - Thursday, April 17, 2014

PAWTUCKET, R.I. (AP) - Seven more people in Rhode Island have died of accidental drug overdoses, bringing the total this year to 85, state health officials said Thursday, as they announced some new initiatives to deal with the crisis.

Dr. Michael Fine, the state health director, said that of the 76 cases screened so far, 46 have involved fentanyl. The powerful prescription painkiller, often in combination with heroin, has been blamed for a string of deaths across the country in recent months.

“This is a disease of staggering impact,” he said at the Anchor Recovery Community Center in Pawtucket, which offers recovery support services.

At an event designed to highlight the state’s efforts, Craig Stenning, director of the state agency that oversees behavioral health, cited the planned launch on May 1 of two new initiatives.

In one program, “coaches” trained in substance abuse will be available at hospital emergency rooms in Providence and Pawtucket. The other initiative will enable doctors to immediately link high risk patients to assessments and other services.

Stenning did not have a price tag for the programs, but said the cost of inaction would be higher.

“Addiction does not necessarily have to be a fatal disease,” he said. “Overdoses are preventable.”

Col. Steven O’Donnell, superintendent of the state police, said troopers have completed their training in the administration of naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that can help reverse the effects of an overdose. Other municipal police departments are following suit.

Emergency personnel have administered Narcan nearly 430 times this year, Fine said. They had already been carrying it before the state issued emergency regulations aiming to expand its availability to law enforcement.

The health department issued a second set of emergency regulations requiring health care professionals and hospitals to report all opiate overdoses or suspected overdoses within 48 hours. Thirty-eight have been reported since April 4, according to Fine.

Speaking to those gathered for the event at Anchor, which included Gov. Lincoln Chafee and dozens of people in recovery, Elise Reynolds, a nurse from Pawtucket, offered a personal story.

“I’ve lost two children to overdose,” she said, referring to her 22-year-old in 2004 and her 30-year-old in 2010.

Reynolds said the abuse started with a prescription for oxycodone she brought home after back surgery and left in the medicine cabinet, without a second thought. The state has made strides in recent years in addressing substance abuse, and those who suffer from it are increasingly realizing that help is available and that it’s OK to seek it.

Still, she said, “There needs to be more (treatment) beds. There needs to be more money.”