Providence - Eleven more people have died of accidental overdoses in Rhode Island this month, according to state health officials who Friday called on police to carry a drug that can counter the effects of a heroin overdose.
There have now been 38 fatal overdoses in the state so far this year. The 27 recorded last month represent a sharp increase from the 18 reported in January 2013 and 15 each in January 2012 and 2011.
"We're really in the middle of an epidemic of drug overdose deaths," said Dr. Michael Fine, director of the state health department.
The department has reported an increase in deaths associated with the powerful painkiller fentanyl, which has been implicated in dozens of fatal overdoses across the Northeast. In Rhode Island, fentanyl was found in 25 of 33 cases screened so far, Fine said. It has been found alone as well as in combination with other drugs, including cocaine, opiates and benzodiazepines, which are used to treat anxiety.
At a briefing at the health department, Col. Steven O'Donnell, superintendent of state police, said his agency will undergo training in the use of naloxone, also known as Narcan, and that all troopers will carry it.
Fine and Craig Stenning, head of the state agency that oversees behavioral health, are calling on municipal police to do the same. They signed a letter Friday that will be sent to the state's association of police chiefs.
First responders in Rhode Island already carry Narcan, Fine said. O'Donnell said he doesn't think any police departments do. Walgreens has agreed to donate the naloxone - at $16 a dose - to state police, O'Donnell said.
But while officials said Narcan can be an important tool in preventing overdose deaths, they stressed that substance abuse treatment is even more critical.
"This is a public health issue. This is a public health crisis," said Stenning of addiction. "It's not an issue that can be ignored."
Stenning's agency recently issued emergency regulations that call for wider training at behavioral health facilities on overdose treatment, including the administration of naloxone, and prevention.
The overdose deaths took place in communities across the state. The victims ranged in age from 20 to 62; 29 were men and nine were women.