As opioid numbers rise, virtual town hall sheds light on work done behind scenes

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published December 8, 2020

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MACOMB COUNTY — As numbers looked like they were on the downturn, opioid use experienced an uptick during the chaos of what has been 2020.

On Dec. 3, local, regional and statewide experts took part in a virtual opioid town hall that elaborated multiple practices that have been utilized over the years. They explained challenges moving forward, as the uncertainty of society coupled with personal tribulations pose somewhat of an uphill battle.

Speakers included Dr. Debra Pinals, medical director of behavioral health and forensic programs at the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services; Linda Spier, vice president of clinical services at Sacred Heart Rehabilitation; Linda Davis, executive director of Families Against Narcotics; Susan Styf, president and CEO of CARE of Southeastern Michigan; and Sterling Heights Police Chief Dale Dwojakowski.

Pinals discussed how over 8,000 people statewide have died from opioid abuse the past five years, putting Michigan in the top 15 states nationally in mortality rate. In 2018, total overdose deaths actually fell by 3.2%.

“The good news is that by the time 2018 had rolled around, we had introduced a number of interventions and were seeing some number of positive trends,” Pinals said.

However, the COVID-19 pandemic reversed that positive trend due to isolation and other factors. Between April and July of this year, with the pandemic in full effect, EMS responses were 22% higher than in the same period in 2019.

Also, since 2014 the opioid battle has had a disproportionate impact on the African-American community, where death rates have increased while other racial populations trended downward.

MDHHS has employed a multi-faceted strategy that includes efforts propagated by numerous state and local agencies and organizations to examine data and hone in on numerous areas of focus.

Pinals said “a key variable” in any public health crisis is prevention, which includes stopping use in the first place. If use does occur, preventing major consequences becomes the obvious next step.

That has been aided by an “End the Stigma” campaign put forward by the state, in coordination with Licensing and Regulatory Affairs to promote the Michigan Automated Prescriptions System, or MAPS, which has been effective and integrated in numerous health systems’ records.

Other aspects include treatment, which involves expanding capacity and streamlining access and improving post-overdose care and supporting long-term recovery. In June, MDHHS launched a naloxone portal to offer the opioid-reversing medication for free by mail to community partners, as well as expand syringe programs.

Criminal justice plays an angle, too, and external partners have supported jail-based implementations in 15 jails statewide. That includes a reentry program to offer specialized services to those who exit incarceration.

“We are targeting populations that we know are extremely high risk for opioid overdose,” Pinals said. “In particular, the data shows that the criminal justice/criminal legal system-involved populations are at very high risk for fatal and nonfatal overdose.”

Spier said Sacred Heart has provided treatment for over 53 years, using evidence-based treatment approaches backed by scientific evidence and implemented in individual and group treatment methodologies.

“We know the struggle is real,” she said. “We’ve seen firsthand the increases in overdoses and deaths; the effects on the family, the community; and we know that many people have lost hope. Some have had unsuccessful treatment attempts, and others have been unable to attend treatments.”

Medical assistance programming includes the offering of FDA-approved medications for curbing opioid use disorders.

“When these medications are taken as prescribed, they are safe and effective and reduce the risk of misuse of prescriptions and elicits that lead to overdose and overdose deaths,” she added.

Davis said that it is not just about the users themselves, but also families and friends who are pivotal in treatment and recovery. She said she learned this years ago, when her own child suffered from addiction.

“We really want to make sure we equip parents with the information they need to navigate the system and to be a help to their child, and not a hindrance and prolong their staying sick,” Davis said. “A lot of times families do that unwittingly.”

Dwojakowski said he learned years ago that locking drug users up for 30, 60 or 90 days did not make habits magically disappear. Rather, crimes persisted and the overall outlook shifted from a criminal perspective to a health perspective.

“Sterling Heights is well aware that it is a health problem, and arresting our way out of this is not going to happen,” he said. “We know a large percentage of our crimes in Sterling Heights is people paying for a drug habit.”

The city has instituted programs in 19 elementary schools. About two years ago, a drug-free coalition began and has included numerous annual public events related to prevention, rehabilitation and dispersing naloxone.

Sterling Heights also has its own methadone clinic, which at first made Dwojakowski skeptical.

“I was a believer after spending a couple hours in the clinic,” he said.

Styf, whose organization provides assistance to a dozen local coalitions, said peer recovery coaches and experts work relatively behind the scenes to right people’s lives.

The CARE Recovery United Community Center opened on Garfield Road in Fraser within the past year, allowing a new location for individuals to take advantage of services that include yoga, career coaching and an art partnership with the Detroit Institute of Arts.

“It is a place for people to come who are seeking recovery or looking to maintain recovery. … It’s really learning about telling their story,” Styf said.

For more information on opioids, visit