Once a hotbed, Burrillville largely escapes new waves of fentanyl, overdose deaths

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BURRILLVILLE – Overdose deaths are on the rise nationwide, and recent news headlines, in states from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, to Kansas and Iowa, point to waves of fentanyl fueling the epidemic and document efforts to combat the crisis.

Rhode Island is not immune from the problem. A recent article in the New York Times notes that drug-related deaths rose in every state but two in 2020, with a record-breaking 30 percent increase that missed only South Dakota and New Hampshire.

And new waves of illegally-made fentanyl – an opioid often mixed with substances including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine – have blanketed the country in recent weeks, with seizures of the deadly substance showing a dramatic increase.

But one northern Rhode Island town, once a focus of the statewide crisis, has been largely spared from recent spikes, according to local officials.

“The good news for Burrillville is we’re not getting hit with those spikes” said Burrillville Police Col. Stephen Lynch this week, at a meeting of the Burrillville Prevention Action Coalition.

Lynch credits targeted efforts by groups such as BPAC with turning the tide.

Once dubbed the overdose capital of the U.S. by some, Burrillville had dozens of drug-related incidents between 2015 and 2017, leading Rhode Island to, at one point, become the third worst state for overdose deaths per capita nationwide. Forty one people in Burrillville were rescued or died from accidental overdoses between 2014 and 2018, when the town first implemented a comprehensive plan to combat the problem.

That year, Lynch hired Coordinator Monica Blanchette to lead BPAC, and launched a sister effort known as the Burrillville Addiction Assistant Program to help town residents already facing addiction issues.

“It’s a steady phenomenon,” Lynch said of drug use. “I think having the programs that we have here do help.”

The colonel noted that incidents involving synthetic fentanyl have been on the rise in towns including Woonsocket, Lincoln and Central Falls.

“They’ve been right around us,” he said.

Kristen Fletcher, a liaison for Community Care Alliance, noted that the substance has also become more deadly.

“The fentanyl that’s coming is getting stronger and stronger,” Fletcher said, noting that it now often takes two doses of Narcan to revive an overdose victim. The powerful street-made opioid is cut into other drugs, and can even turn far less harmful substances deadly just from surface contact, she noted.

“It can be in anything,” Fletcher said. “It’s all over the place. Nothing’s safe right now.”

Councilor Dennis Anderson said of national efforts, “You’re fighting a losing battle if you can’t interrupt the supply chain.”

In the town’s relative success, Lynch pointed to the HOPE Initiative, a statewide response program through which Burrillville officers received training last year, and BAAP’s strategy of visiting homes impacted by an overdose incident to offer assistance days later.

“That’s unique to Burrillville,” Lynch said.

Still, the battle is far from over.

Harrisville Fire Chief Michael Gingell discussed a recent incident in which he was first to arrive at the scene of an overdose in town. Two young women and a young man greeted the chief, frantic over an adult who was not breathing.

“The first Narcan we gave that adult did not have a full reversal,” said Gingell. “What a situation for them to have to go through.”

“What strikes me is: it’s adults, and these kids are seeing this,” Gingell said. “It’s not just teens or young people. No kid should have to see that.”

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