Fentanyl-related overdose deaths continue to climb in RI

RI Health Dept. director hopes total number of overdoses will plateau in 2017

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – The powerful and often potently deadly drug fentanyl continues to grow as the leading cause of fatal overdoses in Rhode Island, according to R.I. Health Department data.

Back in 2014, 35% of overdose deaths were fentanyl-related. The share grew to 47% in 2015, and then hit more than half – 59% – in 2016. The increase has continued this year: as of September, 60% of overdose deaths in 2017 are linked to the drug, the data shows.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl got its start as a synthetic drug typically prescribed to people suffering severe, chronic pain. But most of the fentanyl behind overdoses is linked to illegally made fentanyl.

“It is often mixed with heroin and/or cocaine as a combination product with or without the user’s knowledge to increase its euphoric effects,” according to the CDC’s website.

Health Department Director Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott said the opioid epidemic is “our number one crisis still ongoing.” Her agency’s data shows 290 people in Rhode Island died from an accidental overdose in 2015, rising to 336 in 2016. To date in 2017, 163 have suffered a fatal overdose.

“Our modeling shows we may plateau around the same number [as 2016],” Alexander-Scott said Friday during a taping of WPRI 12’s Newsmakers. “More than one death is unacceptable in our minds, but we are acknowledging the increase other states are seeing – we are hopefully seeing a flattening of that, and we really want to see a decrease in those numbers.”

Sue Coutu’s daughter Kristen died of an overdose in February 2014 after using fentanyl-laced heroin.

“She had been sold heroin with fentanyl in it and it was actually almost 100% fentanyl that killed her,” Coutu said. “I don’t think Kristen thought there was any fentanyl in the drug she took.”

Coutu called the increase in fentanyl-related deaths frustrating because “we haven’t gotten a handle on this situation – I’m frustrated we haven’t thought out of the box.”

At the time Kristen had just returned from a 30-day treatment program in Texas, where she was thrust into complete abstinence from substances. In hindsight, Couto said, that sort of treatment doesn’t work.

“What I propose and many people propose is medication-assisted treatment, which is methadone or Suboxone, some type of medication that is a substitute that takes away the craving,” Coutu said. “You can live a very normal, happy, long life on those medications.”

“I wish I knew that then,” she added. “I wish she knew that then.”

Prosecutors say Aaron Andrade, a Providence man, killed Coutu by selling her the fatal dose of heroin laced with fentanyl. He pleaded no contest to second-degree murder in April.

Andrade was sentenced to 40 years with 20 to serve in prison. It is the first time in Rhode Island a drug dealer was convicted of murder in an overdose death case.

Coutu urged parents to talk to their kids openly about drugs, insisting “it’s not going to cause them to use drugs.” She said it’s also important to look for signs of drug use, and not to ignore them.

“Love them as much as you can,” she said. “Just love your children so much, and that alone gives them a feeling of belonging and being part of something bigger than themselves.”

Tim White ( twhite@wpri.com ) is the Target 12 investigative reporter and host of Newsmakers for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook