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Preliminary numbers show 16% jump in drug overdose deaths in Michigan last year

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flickr/Charles Williams
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It is another devastating statistic from 2020.

Michigan had a 16% increase in drug overdose deaths in 2020 as compared to the previous year, according to provisional numbers released by the Centers for Disease Control.

This disrupts Michigan's decrease in overdose deaths since 2018. 

Dr. Kanzoni Asabigi is with the Detroit Recovery Project, an organization that focuses on substance use disorders.

Asabigi said he was not surprised ?— during the pandemic, he noticed those rises too.

"We stayed open, but people were very scared to come to the office to receive services. So, our census declined by more than 50%," he said. 

Data is not yet available for Michigan, and a handful of other states, to see which types of drugs are driving the numbers. Nationally, it is opioids.

Michigan has been one of the hardest hit states in the U.S. opioid epidemic in the past

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services signaled the rise in opioid overdoses last July. MDHHS reported EMS responses for opioid overdose increased by 26% from April 2020 through June 2020 as compared to the same time period in 2019. It increased nearly among all demographic groups, except people over 65. 

“Opioid overdoses kill far too many Michiganders, and it’s a double tragedy that the pandemic has exacerbated this crisis,” Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief deputy for health and chief medical executive, said in the July news release. 

According to MDHHS's prelimary data from July 2020, white Michiganders saw the greatest increases. But also noted the average monthly rate of EMS responses for opioid overdoses among Black residents was much higher between April and June 2020.

This concered Asabigi. He said while there was a total decrease in overdose death rates before the pandemic, there was a slight rise among Black Michiganders. In his experience in Detroit, many deaths were Black men older than 55. Because of these trends, he said national messaging about the opioid epidemic should be more diverse. 

The pandemic made people more isolated and exacerbated stressful conditions, like losing jobs or homes, Asabigi said. In his ancedotal experience, these situations may have pushed casual users too.

There is also the rise of fentanyl, which is sometimes mixed with heroin or cocaine, sometimes without the user's knowledge. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that the CDC says is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. (Naloxone is used as a countermeasure in overdoses.)

Asabigi also added, in his experience, formerly incarcerated people with a history of substance-use disorders who were released during the pandemic entered a stressful environment with little support or referrals to organizations. Asabigi said studies show formerly incarcerated are likely to overdose since their tolerance levels are not the same. 

It's why he said there should be either outreach in the system, or a formal protocol to link people to services when they are released. Not just a list of services, but someone to personally engage with them, to see if they have transportation or other needs. 

The Detroit Recovery Project is partnering with emergency rooms to see people are referred to organizations like theirs. They are also working within the community and the criminal justice system.

During the pandemic, Asabigi said it was difficult reaching out to some of their clients, especially those who couldn't use Telehealth because they didn't have phone service. Or those who were homeless or those who didn't have transportation. They did outreach services and had vans to drive people to their location. It was challenge for them, he said. 

Michigan is part of a national trend

Almost every state in the country saw an increase in deaths from December 2019 to December 2020. The United States as a whole saw almost saw a 30% increase.

Only two states saw a decrease: South Dakota and New Hampshire. (And New Hampshire's decrease was 0.5%.)

Other conditions also flared during the pandemic. Some Michigan doctors have also seen signs of rising alcoholic liver disease during the pandemic, with increases in admissions for alcoholic hepatitis (the most severe form of ALD). Eating disorders doubled at C.S. Mott Children's hospital. 

Asabigi said, generally, he is optimistic that the opioid epidemic can get controlled. 

"But everybody needs to chip in, and let's reduce the stigma to substance use disorders," Asabigi said.

You can reach out to the Detroit Recovery project at their helpline, 1-833-DRP-HEAL, or their office, 313. 365.3100.

Here are the list of resources MDHHS provides, if you, or someone you know, are seeking help: 

Access resources to support the mental and physical health of those with substance use disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic. Never Use Alone is a service anyone can call while using drugs. The caller will be connected to a person who will seek emergency services for them if they drop off the line or don’t respond to a return call. Call 800-484-3731 or visit NeverUseAlone.com to learn more. Find an SSP near you that can provide sterile needles, naloxone and other life-saving resources.? Treatment centers are still open during COVID-19 and listed online so you can find a center near you Share the COVID-19 hotline number (888-535-6136) and tell them to press “8” for free emotional support counseling. Direct them to Michigan.gov/StayWell for a list of other help lines, including a peer “warm line” for individuals in distress who want to talk to someone who understands substance use disorders, the National Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990 and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. Call 211. Anyone struggling or seeking resources for substance use treatment services can call this free service that connects Michigan residents with health resources in their communities. For more information about overdoses and resources for prevention and treatment, visit Michigan.gov/Opioids.

Nisa Khan joins Michigan Radio as the station’s first full-time data reporter. In that capacity, she will be reporting on data-driven news stories as well as working with other news staff to acquire and analyze data in support of their journalism.
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