Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo on Tuesday cited a 9 percent decline in drug overdose deaths through August of this year as evidence that the state is making progress in tackling the opioid epidemic.
State health data shows 208 people died of accidental overdoses in Rhode Island during the first eight months of 2017, compared with 227 overdose deaths during the same period in 2016.
Rhode Island's numbers appear to mirror data from Massachusetts, where health officials reported a 10 percent drop in deaths from opioid overdoses during the first nine months of the year, compared with the same period in 2016.
But the state's overdose death toll far exceeds the goal Raimondo set during her first year in office of reducing by one-third deaths from opioid overdoses by 2018.
“It isn’t a victory lap at all,” Raimondo said Tuesday at the Cranston office of CODAC, a center that offers medication-assisted treatment for addiction. “But it’s a slight ray of hope…that what we are doing seems to be working. We’re beginning to see some results.”
In written comments released by the governor’s office, Raimondo maintained a measured tone, saying her administration is "cautiously optimistic about the numbers we are releasing today."
"This is a glimmer of hope in the uphill battle," said Eric Bean, the state’s secretary of health and human services.
Health Director Nicole Alexander-Scott echoed those remarks, commenting, “this issue absolutely remains a public health crisis and we must push even harder now in order to see any improvements sustained.”
So far this year, the number of people who died in Rhode Island of drug overdoses exceeds Raimondo’s goal by about 40 percent.
Asked whether her goal was too ambitious, Raimondo told Rhode Island Public Radio, "in retrospect, probably."
Since Raimondo took office, Rhode Island has expanded medication-assisted treatment in the state prison; increased access to naloxone, an opioid-overdose antidote, among state and local police departments and established statewide standards for hospitals and emergency departments for preventing and treating opioid overdoses. And the state has expanded use of recovery coaches -- mostly people in recovery from opioid addiction -- in hospital emergency departments.
But until recently, the number of overdose deaths continued to climb. State health officials attribute that rise to a new culprit: fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine.
In 2015, drug overdoses killed 290 people -- up from 240 the previous year. Nearly half of the overdose deaths in 2015 involved fentanyl, according to state health data published on the website preventoverdoseri.org.
By 2016, fatal overdoses in Rhode Island had spiked 40 percent, the biggest single jump on record. That year, 336 people died of drug overdoses -- 58 percent of them involving fentanyl, the state data shows.
During the first nine months of 2017, the state reports 227 drug overdose deaths – 59 percent involving fentanyl.
“I knew at the time it was ambitious,” Raimondo said Tuesday of her goal. “It was deliberately ambitious because I’m trying to move a whole system into action, to be urgent. So we’re seeing improvement. I wish it were more. And I hope that today’s news gives everybody the motivation to continue because the hard work is starting to pay off.’”
Updated 4:47 p.m.