War on Opioids: Why it's everyone's battle

Every day in this country, there are thousands of overdose emergency calls, and 115 people die daily, on average.

Series Producer: Caitlin Grimaldi

Photojournalist and Editor: Scott Santos

Every day in this country, there are thousands of overdose emergency calls, and 115 people die daily, on average.

"Just when we think we've figured it out, the goal line changes," said Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo.

Front and center, a more recent threat: fentanyl.

"These substances are being made to look like they're an opioid," said Detective Kyle Costa of the Dartmouth Police Department

If you're getting drugs from anywhere other than a pharmacy, you might think you're taking Percocet or OxyContin, but it's actually fentanyl.

"Before 2012, it was less than 5 percent," said Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health. "For 2017, it's approaching 70 percent."

That’s almost 70 percent of overdose deaths from fentanyl.

"It's almost 100 times more dangerous and deadly than heroin," said Alexander-Scott.

One packet of sugar, which is 1 gram, could potentially wipe out thousands.

"That's enough to kill 5,000 people if it was fentanyl," said Jon Pascua, a firefighter and paramedic in Coventry.

He said that one gram could kill 500,000 people in its purest form, carfentanyl.

"It's not necessarily a drug addict or a junkie who's going to be overdosing. It could be a loved one who's on some opioids, takes the wrong dosage," said Officer Aries "A.J." Medeiros of the Coventry Police Department.

"One of my cabinet members lost his son to overdose and that funeral was hard and then one week later, I went to the funeral of a very good friend's daughter," said Raimondo.

"What people need to realize is that the disease of addiction affects all of us in some way or another," said Tom Coderre, newly appointed senior adviser to the governor.

In my family, my mom -- a schoolteacher -- died when I was 16, leaving behind me, my sister and brother. Our dad said she died of a brain aneurysm.

Years later when I needed her death certificate for some paperwork, we learned the actual cause of death was accidental overdose. The stigma is real.

"Using alcohol to excess was what got me started," said Coderre.

The former Rhode Island state senator had a very public fall after alcohol and drugs led to his arrest in 2003 on drug charges.

"It was painful for me and for my family, but I got to the other side of it," said Coderre.

He is celebrating 14 years of recovery, and is now Raimondo's senior advisor in the crusade against the opioid overdose epidemic.

"I decided I needed someone who was like a full-time point person thinking about this all day long," said Raimondo.

"There are three barriers that prevent people from sustaining their recovery for the long term," said Coderre. "One is housing, the other is education, and the third is job."

It's boots on the ground, from those on the streets trying to reach people in the throes of homelessness and addiction to what's going on behind bars.

"Anyone who is being discharged from the Department of Corrections gets to sign up for what we call Safe Ride. So, as they're being discharged they have their medication-assisted treatment, they have their naloxone, and they also have a ride to a safe place," said Coderre.

This is an all-out assault. Education, treatment, an antidote.

"Naloxone has saved a lot of lives," said Coderre.

The numbers bear that out.

In 2016, there were 336 overdose deaths in Rhode Island. That number dropped to 233 in 2017, although that figure is not yet final. Health officials said they believe widespread use of naloxone by first responders is a big reason why.

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