standing Brown University

Brown University entrance. Sun file photo

PROVIDENCE — Brown University has been awarded $6.8 million in federal funding to work with Rhode Island health officials to help solve the opioid overdose crisis, the school announced Tuesday.

The university's School of Public Health will use two new five-year National Institutes of Health grants to develop a model to predict which strategies for preventing overdoses work best in specific neighborhoods, and to evaluate the effectiveness of test strips used to detect fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid.

Data science experts from New York University's School of Medicine and the University of California, Berkeley, are helping with the forecasting model.

After it's developed, Rhode Island health officials will target interventions in some neighborhoods considered at high risk for opioid overdoses, as opposed to using the same approach throughout a municipality. The goal is to try to reduce overdoses by 40%, said Brandon Marshall, an associate professor of epidemiology at Brown and principal investigator for both projects.

Half of the state's municipalities will receive modeling predictions to guide the distribution of overdose prevention resources, including the overdose-reversal medication naloxone. The rest will continue receiving resources without  particular neighborhoods being singled out. If the model works, it could be used in other states, Marshall added.

Separately, researchers will teach about 500 Rhode Island residents who use drugs about the dangers of fentanyl and how to use fentanyl test strips, to try to reduce overdoses.

Both projects will begin in December. Rhode Island's health director, Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, said they would  leverage data in powerful new ways to save lives.

Unlike in many other states, the number of accidental drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island has continued to decline. According to health officials, there were 314 overdose deaths in 2018, compared with 324 in 2017 and 336 in 2016.

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