R.I. reports slight decline in opioid overdose deaths as national figures plateau

THE R.I. DEPARTMENT of Health reports declining opioid overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/KIYOSHI OTA
THE R.I. DEPARTMENT of Health reports declining opioid overdose deaths in 2017 and 2018. / BLOOMBERG NEWS FILE PHOTO/KIYOSHI OTA

PROVIDENCE — The Ocean State has recorded a slight downturn in the number of opioid overdose deaths in 2017 and the start of 2018 as the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports national numbers plateauing.

“Any one overdose is one too many. We still have a lot of work to do in addressing this crisis,” said Joseph Wendelken,  spokesman for the R.I. Department of Health, “However, between 2016 and 2017, we saw a modest decrease in overdose deaths, and we remain on this downward trajectory in 2018.”

On Tuesday, Alex Azar, secretary at the U.S. DHHS, said the number of opioid deaths is plateauing nationally. The remarks came during Azar’s speech at the Milken Institute ‘s Future of Health Summit 2018 on Tuesday at the Ritz Carlton Washington DC Plaza.

“From 2016 to 2017, the number of Americans dying from drug overdoses rose from 64,000 to approximately 72,000. But toward the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, the number of drug overdose deaths has begun to plateau,” Azar said. “According to provisional data from the CDC, the seemingly relentless trend of rising opioid overdose deaths seems to finally be bending in the right direction.”

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Provisional data put the number of total reported deaths for the previous 12 months at 68,690, with an estimate of 71,073 deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. True declines or plateaus in the numbers of drug overdose deaths across the U.S. cannot be ascertained without the final data, the CDC noted in the report.

In Rhode Island, there were 336 overdose deaths, which dropped to 323 in 2017, Wendelken said. There were 157 overdose deaths through the first six months of 2018.

“Many factors are likely contributing to this decrease, including Rhode Island’s focus on getting treatment and recovery services to the people who are most vulnerable to opioid-use disorder and overdose,” Wendelken said.

For example, Rhode Island established the nation’s first comprehensive medication-assisted treatment program in its corrections systems that provides treatment to anyone in the correctional system with opioid-use disorder, Wendelken said. The state has also established 14 Centers of Excellence for treatment of opioid-use disorder throughout the state, locations where anyone can go to get all the services they need to get on, and stay on, the road to recovery.

In 2016, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to practitioners recommending a reduction in the prescribing of opioid medications for chronic pain. In Rhode Island, the R.I. Department of Health has steadily reduced opioid prescribing over the last several years by updating prescribing regulations.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has awarded more than $930 million to states to help fight the opioid epidemic, Azar said, with a new focus on supporting medication assisted treatment. SAMHSA awarded $12.5 million to Rhode Island for that purpose.

Rob Borkowski is a PBN staff writer. Email him at Borkowksi@PBN.com.