Mahoney: ‘We’ve lost way too many people’

Mahoney: ‘We’ve lost way too many people’

Community organizations working to combat substance use, overdoses during pandemic

While COVID-19 has been dominating the news for almost a year, community leaders are warning that another crisis has been continuing and worsening, both locally and nationally, in part due to the pandemic: the opioid epidemic.

According to the Rhode Island Department of Health’s Office of the State Medical Examiners, during the first eight months of 2020, there were 271 accidental drug overdose deaths, compared with 211 during the same time period in 2019, according to a press release. Fatal drug overdoses increased by 28 percent, while opioid-involved fatal overdoses increased by 34 percent.

“We’ve lost way too many people from every area of the state. There isn’t an area that hasn’t been touched,” Linda Mahoney, state opioid treatment authority and administrator for the R.I. Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals, told The Breeze.

Mahoney noted that the issue isn’t unique to Rhode Island. Nationally, according to data from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in May 2020, which is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

“The latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic,” states a CDC report, which adds that synthetic opioids (primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl) appear to be the main driver of the increases in overdose deaths. According to Mahoney, there has been an increase in counterfeit pills, such as Xanax and Adderall, that contain fentanyl. “Unless it came from the pharmacy itself, it could be illicit,” she said. Strips that test drugs for traces of fentanyl are available to the public.

Mahoney said the rise in substance use and overdoses can’t be solely blamed on the pandemic, though isolation, unemployment, fear and worry have certainly all contributed, as has the ability to get alcohol delivered to one’s home.

Rhode Island, she said, was one of 14 states that had reduced overdoses from 2018 to 2019, noting that the state was successful in distributing a lot of naloxone, the overdose reversal medicine. However, numbers were increasing in January and February of 2020, before the pandemic hit.

In response to the rise of overdose deaths during the pandemic, organizations in Rhode Island have been working to raise awareness and provide funding and education around the subject in an effort to save lives.

Gov. Gina Raimondo’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force launched Rhode Island’s 10,000 Chances Project, which partnered with local community organizations to distribute more than 10,000 kits of naloxone to Rhode Islanders who are at risk of overdose, according to a press release. Mahoney noted they sought to help communities that are hardest hit, including Pawtucket and Woonsocket.

The following organizations each received $5,000 in grant funding and 500 two-pack intranasal naloxone kits: AIDS Care Ocean State, Amos House, Community Care Alliance, East Bay Community Action Program, Gateway HealthCare Inc., Lifespan/Rhode Island Hospital, Parent Support Network, Pawtucket Housing Authority, Preventing Overdose and Naloxone Intervention in partnership with The Miriam Hospital, Project Weber/RENEW, The Providence Center, Rhode Island Communities for Addiction Recovery Efforts, and the University of Rhode Island Community First Responder Program.

According to Mahoney, the 10,000 naloxone kits were distributed to treatment agencies, prevention coalitions, and other organizations by Dec. 31, “which is a hustle.”

Naloxone can also be delivered to people’s homes. “We’re hoping that for people who can’t get out, they have the opportunity to get the drug that could save their life,” she said.

State officials, responding to results from a recent survey, are also trying to increase their outreach into different communities, including to Latinx and Black populations, Mahoney said.

One way community members can help is to lessen the discrimination and fear of coming forward, she said. “Help build recovery in your community,” she said. “Just talk about it. … Talk to children about medicines and the disease of addiction.”

PHA using funds for education, prevention

Rosa Felix-Pichardo, wellness coordinator for the Pawtucket Housing Authority, one of the organizations that received $5,000 in grant funding and 500 two-pack intranasal naloxone kits from the state, said funding will be used to share prevention tips and resources with folks who are at a high risk of overdosing. The grant, she said, is a “great opportunity to incorporate what we do at the Pawtucket Housing Authority but on a large scale.”

Pawtucket, she noted, is one of the communities seeing higher numbers of overdoses. From 2016 to 2019, there were 387 opioid overdoses and 66 deaths in the city, she said.

The PHA, with five public housing sites and 812 units, serves a lower-income population with residents at a high risk of overdosing, with backgrounds of mental illnesses and substance use disorders, she said.

Also, naloxone nasal spray will be available at each of the Housing Authority sites, which is easier and less intimidating to use than the injectable naloxone that was there previously, she said. “A lot of people are hesitant to inject a needle into someone else’s arm,” she said, adding that this will hopefully encourage more people to intervene if needed.

Working with the residents, Felix-Pichardo said she’s definitely seen how the pandemic is affecting people going through recovery. Especially in the community served by the PHA, they may not have access to online resources or support, and due to social isolation, there have been more reports of individuals feeling depressed, anxious, and fearful, she said.

Substance use extends beyond opioids

Pam Shayer, Lincoln coordinator for the Blackstone Valley Prevention Coalition, said that there is an uptick in use not just with opioids but other substances, especially alcohol, attributing that increase to the pandemic. With more people stuck at home, out of work, and socially isolated, depression and anxiety are skyrocketing. “This is a drastic change in the way people live,” she said. “We’re going to see numbers go up, unfortunately.”

Shayer noted that many people who were in long-term recovery before the pandemic have not been able to attend in-person meetings, making it more difficult to stay in recovery. “It’s so easy to fall off the wagon,” she said.

The Prevention Coalition has been working to provide resources, focusing on all types of substances, to the communities in the Blackstone Valley, not just for youth but for everyone, with programs funded by a federal Drug Free Communities grant, Shayer said. They’ve been using social media to spread tips and educate the public about the opioid crisis, she said, and are also focusing on mental health and wellness, especially for students whose routines have been disrupted by the pandemic.

“We’re doing the best we can in definitely a different time,” she said.

Shayer noted that all school nurses in Lincoln were given naloxone this year, and that local police stations have drop boxes for people to dispose of unused prescription medications.

Resources are available

• Fire stations in Woonsocket, East Providence, Providence, and Newport are deemed “safe stations,” which are open every day to help people in crisis get connected to a peer recovery support specialist and treatment and recovery support services.

• By visiting PreventOverdoseRI.org , members of the public can request a free naloxone kit, safer drug use supplies, and connection to a certified peer recovery support specialist.

• BH Link, Rhode Island’s 24/7 behavioral health hotline, connects callers to trained professionals who can provide confidential counseling, referrals and support services. Call 401-414-5465.

• The Buprenorphine Hotline provides 24/7 telehealth services for people experiencing opioid withdrawal. Call 401-606-5456.

Comments

Just wait until the border gets opened up and the drugs flow freely into this country that number will double . The market will be flooded and the price for that poison will fall. Gee not being raciest am I ?