Injury Prevention Center tracker shows increase in Michigan opioid overdoses since start of pandemic
The System for Opioid Overdoses (SOS) dashboard, a research initiative built by the University of Michigan’s Injury Prevention Center to accumulate data on opioid use, shows a relatively substantial increase in opioid overdoses and naloxone administration in Michigan over the past year.
The tracker displays data specific to each county and is used as a tool to help analyze trends within different cities or counties. It can also display pertinent demographic and locational information regarding overdoses. Cumulatively, it has been estimated that the entire state of Michigan has seen a 15% increase in fatal overdoses this year since March of 2019.
Project investigators said they are hesitant to draw conclusions about why the rates have been higher in 2020 and what aspects of the pandemic may have caused this. However, Jason Goldstick, the principal investigator for SOS and professor of emergency medicine, said it was clear that the pandemic has exacerbated the state’s opioid epidemic.
“The way that I read this, regardless of the explanation, these two epidemics are co-occurring,” Goldstick said. “The overdose epidemic is also ongoing, and it's getting worse.”
The system also tracks naloxone administration in the state of Michigan. Naloxone is an overdose reversal drug that is administered by emergency medical services and doctors in cases where patients have overdosed or are requiring treatment for incapacitation. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it is sometimes administered as a nasal spray or through direct injection.
SOS’s data showed that 26 of the 83 counties in Michigan saw an increase of greater than 30% in their cumulative naloxone administration. Included on this list were Kalamazoo County, Oakland County, Macomb County and Lapeer County, among others. Washtenaw County, home to the University, saw a slight decrease in estimated fatal overdoses, one of the few counties in this category.
Additionally, two counties — Berrien and Muskegon — saw an increase greater than 30% in their suspected fatal overdoses.
Cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids, Lansing and Muskegon saw upticks in suspected fatal overdoses. However, Jason Goldstick pointed out that Emergency Medical Service administration of naloxone in some of those cities did not increase, making it difficult to determine why these cities saw increases.
“It’s surveillance data,” Goldstick said. “It is showing that rates were higher than last year, that’s certainly true.”
Suspected fatal overdoses saw a significant maximum point around mid-May, when COVID-19 was surging in Michigan. The graphs produced by SOS project that overdoses and virus cases at that point were almost moving in lock-step with one another.
“If you’re following social distancing pretty strictly… you might not follow that harm reduction technique which is to do drugs with someone else so that you’re more likely to be revived,” Goldstick said.
LSA junior Sesilia Kammo, who serves as secretary for the student organization Scientists for Outreach on Addiction Research, echoed Goldstick’s point and noted that the COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic are occurring alongside one another.
“I think the biggest issue with this is that it’s creating a dual public health crisis in America,” Kammo said. “People don’t really know which area to tackle first, whether it be COVID-19 or the opioid overdose epidemic.”
While Goldstick said it is unclear exactly why the rates were higher, he said it is somewhat likely that increased isolation from others and enhanced social distancing were possible causes. Goldstick also pointed out that stress due to the pandemic could have caused some overdoses as people turned to drugs and did not have access to adequate resources or medical attention.
Other causes could be the lack of health insurance, since unemployment rates across the country have been high in recent months.
Overall, the stress attributed to the pandemic is a possible factor in this increase in overdoses, Kent Berridge, professor of neuroscience and psychology, said.
“The pandemic is a very stressful time for a lot of people. Stressors definitely promote drug use — there's no question about that,” Berridge said.
Berridge said recent advances in the engineering of opioids like fentanyl have made it easier for people to overdose in recent years, since it takes a smaller dose for the drug to be fatal.
As the pandemic and opioid epidemic rage on, Kammo said sources like SOS can help harm reduction experts find ways to curb opioid overdoses.
“A lot of people get into these situations where they have substance use issues, it’s very hard to find help,” said Kammo. “I definitely think there is not enough (preventative assistance) in regards to this.”
Daily News Contributor Christian Juliano can be reached at email@example.com
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