WESTERLY — On a recent afternoon, outreach workers with Hope Recovery Centers hit the streets, talking to individuals and business owners about substance abuse and asking them to accept packages of Narcan, a drug used to resuscitate opioid overdose victims. The effort follows a surge in drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island and the rest of the country in 2020 and indications that the state and the town are continuing on a similarly dangerous path.

"We're here to engage the community about overdose in Rhode Island. We know that fatal and non-fatal overdoses in the state are at the highest they’ve ever been right now. We want to make sure everybody knows that they should be carrying Narcan with the numbers as high as they are," said Sarah Edwards, manager of community outreach response efforts for Hope Recovery Centers|Parent Support Network of Rhode Island.

Edwards was speaking while standing outside the Hope Recovery Center on Beach Street.

The afternoon outreach effort included a visit to Westerly Library, which already had a Narcan kit stored along with an automated external defibrillator in a box next to the circulation desk. Edwards and her co-worker, Stacey Levin, also approached people walking in Wilcox Park and gave away about four kits in just a few minutes.

By taking a man or woman on the street approach, Edwards said, she and others are trying to pierce a stigma surrounding substance abuse, including opioids, and overdose.

Edwards and Levin took turns approaching people in the park and explaining what they were doing and why and the efficacy of Narcan in reversing opioid overdose.

"More so than ever overdose is survivable, and yet people are still dying," said Evan England, who works as a spokesman for the state Department of Health. England accompanied Edwards and Levin as they walked through the downtown area.

Narcan, Edwards said, is easy to administer. The kits Edwards and Levin distributed contain a nasal spray. If a bystander suspects they have encountered an overdose victim, Narcan can be administered after calling 911. The substance does no harm if the person did not suffer an overdose, Edwards said. Fentanyl overdoses often require multiple doses of the drug, she said. The recent outreach campaign was oriented toward non-substance-abusers. The team also targets substance users, but typically not when media representatives are invited.

The Department of Health is one of the state agencies working in collaboration with the governor’s Overdose Prevention and Intervention Task Force on the 10,000 Chances Project, a campaign to get more than 10,000 kits of Narcan, which is also called naloxone, into the hands of state residents. The task force was initiated by former Gov. Gina Raimondo and is continuing under her successor, Gov. Dan McKee. Hope Recovery Centers and the Rhode Island Parent Network are one of several organizations participating in the project.

Edwards, Levin, and England moved from the park to a few businesses. They stopped into Herbwise Naturals on Broad Street and the Malted Barley on High Street. Both establishments accepted Narcan kits. Ian Juers, a bartender at the Malted Barley,was already familiar with the product. He said he started carrying a kit in his car after encountering several overdose victims while visiting friends in Philadelphia.

"I've seen overdoses on the streets ... that's why I carry Narcan with me. Just because you never know," Juers said.

While opioid overdose deaths once involved mostly heroin and pharmaceutical pain killers, the primary problem is now fentanyl, a  synthetic opioid that is  50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Carfentanyl, a synthetic fentanyl derivative, has also become common, Edwards said.

Dealers cut heroin with fentanyl and carfentanyl or sell the substances separately.  Counterfeit pills that resemble prescription pills have also become common in the illicit drug trade. The Westerly Police Department seized 4,000 counterfeit pills they said likely contained fentanyl during an operation in February.

The two substances are also being found in cocaine. In fact, about half of the overdose deaths in Rhode Island in 2020 involved cocaine and 75% of those involved fentanyl.

"The drug supply within the state is poisoned with fentanyl and carfentanyl," Edwards said.

Overall, accidental drug-overdose deaths increased by 25%, from 308 in 2019 to 384 in 2020 in Rhode Island. Fatal overdoses, for which any opioid, including fentanyl, contributed to the cause of death, increased by 27% compared to 2019. 2020 saw an increase in the rate of fatal overdoses in every age group.

State statistics for 2021 are so far not complete, but Edwards said it appears there is a slight increase in overdoses in Westerly.

"There is some increase in Westerly. It's not at a point where it's super alarming yet. That's why it makes sense to try to get ahead of it," Edwards said.

Edwards, who describes herself as "a person in recovery," said she has lost friends and recovery associates to overdose.

"It affects all of us — people we all know. Personally I don't even know how many people I've lost, and I know I'm not the only one who is experiencing this. I'm grateful people are receptive to taking a compassionate approach. That's what makes a difference when people are honest about the issue," Edwards said.

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