Michigan Opioid Overdose Deaths Continue To Climb
According to recent data released by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, in 2015, Michigan saw 1,981 drug overdose deaths from all causes, an increase of 13.5 percent from 2014. Deaths from drug overdoses quadrupled since 1999, up from just 455.
Also, deaths related to prescription opioids increased 54% from 2015-2016, and have tripled since 2012. In 2016, 1,365 people lost their lives to these drugs, up from 884 in 2015. Heroin deaths, however, decreased from 391 to 324 in 2016.
Overall, opioid overdose deaths accounted for nearly three-quarters of all drug-related deaths in 2016, compared to under two-thirds in 2015.
From 2014-2015, 19 states (Michigan among them) experienced marked increases in overdose deaths. Michigan’s overdose deaths rate ranked 15th in the nation at just over 20 deaths per 100,000 residents.
The high level of drug overdoses in Michigan and nationwide is largely due to the ever-increasing availability of both legal opioids (prescription) and illicit drugs (heroin and fentanyl.)
In 2015, prescription painkillers such as oxycodone and hydrocodone were linked to 45% of drug poisoning deaths in the state. Around 20% of fatalities involved heroin.
Alger County (in the Upper Peninsula) had the highest rate of overdose deaths at 4.3 deaths per 10,000 residents in 2015, and opioid overdose deaths related to prescription painkillers and heroin were highest in Benzie and Calhoun counties, both experiencing nearly three deaths per 10,000 residents.
Of little surprise, Wayne County had the highest number of overdose deaths at 575. Several counties reported none, including Arenac, Baraga, Delta, Houghton, Keweenaw, Montmorency, Ontonagon, and Oscoda.
In the U.S., drug deaths numbered more than 52,400 in 2015, and nearly two-thirds involved an opioid, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And recently released preliminary data by the CDC shows that overdose deaths in 2016 will reach over 64,000.
Why The Numbers Continue To Increase
Like the rest of the country, prescription opioids have become abundant in the last two decades. From 2016, health care providers wrote 11 million prescriptions for opioid painkillers – enough to put one bottle of pills in the hands of every Michigan resident.
And that reflects an increase of around 3 million from 2009 when 8 million were reported.
Some people who received prescriptions for opioids became dependent upon them. Others left pills unsecured or gave them away or sold them to family and friends. As a result, the opioid market became flooded with both legitimate prescriptions and products of drug diversion. Those who developed an addiction often switched to heroin when they could not obtain or afford their drug of choice.
Indeed, according to the CDC, roughly 75% of new heroin users report initiated their habit after becoming addicted to painkillers.
The Presence of Fentanyl
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid similar in effect to heroin but up to 50 times more powerful. It’s been responsible for a rash of deaths around the country, including Michigan, due to its potency. In fact, some experts believe that it is now involved in about half of all drug-related deaths.
By prescription, fentanyl is usually found as a transdermal patch that absorbs slowly into the skin.
It’s used to treat severe pain among cancer and hospice patients. In a hospital setting, it’s used for general anesthesia.
But the Drug Enforcement Agency says the fentanyl on the streets isn’t a product of drug diversion. Rather, it’s made in clandestine labs in China and routed through Mexico into the U.S. It is then laced into heroin and other drugs, because it’s inexpensive and very potent. Basically, its inclusion serves to maximize dealer profits.
But fentanyl is so dangerous, even skin contact can cause a potentially-fatal overdose. First reponders and those exposed to the drug must wear protective gear. There have been incidents around the country
of law enforcement and emergency personnel exposed to fentanyl who had to be hospitalized.
What’s Being Done
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services issued a statement earlier this year, saying that the state is launching”multiple initiatives including a media campaign to raise awareness about the dangers of opioid misuse, the treatment options available, and to educate the public about proper storage and disposal of prescription drugs.”
In May, Michigan issued an order to pre-authorize pharmacists to dispense naloxone to eligible persons. Naloxone is a very effective anti-opioid overdose drug that has saved thousands of lives all over the country. Since it was issued, over 25% of pharmacies in Michigan have registered to the distribute it under the standing order.
That same month, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced the formation of a new task force to battle opioid abuse in Michigan, called the Opioid Trafficking and Interdiction Unit initiative.
The new four-person unit prosecutes crimes related to heroin and other opioids, and is designed to assist local authorities target the prescription drug supply from both dealers and physicians who are over-prescribing.
Additionally, in April of this year Michigan received over $16 million in federal funds to promote prevention, broaden access to treatment, and reduce opioid overdose deaths.
~ G. Nathalee Serrels, M.A., Psychology