State opioid overdose rates increase during pandemic

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published August 10, 2020

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METRO DETROIT — Stress and isolation are being identified as triggers as statistics show substantial increases in opioid overdoses since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, or MDHHS, said that EMS responses for opioid overdose increased by 33% from April to May. The period between April and June showed a 26% increase when compared to the same time period in 2019.

In total, EMS responses for opioid overdoses increased for all regions and nearly all demographics, except for residents aged 65 years and older.

Andrea Taverna, senior advisor for opioids strategy at MDHHS, said data has been accumulated via two separate sources: EMS calls, which relay health issues and list when and where calls occurred; and information received from emergency departments, such as the number of people admitted and why they were admitted.

According to Lynn Sutfin, public information officer for MDHHS, the department currently analyzes both emergency department and EMS data on a monthly basis.

“We typically look at the data for a month two weeks after the end of a month,” Sutfin said. “So, for example, we will start pulling/analyzing the July data on Aug. 14. This allows for any updates or late reports to be filed.”

Other insights pertaining to the data include refusal of transportation to emergency departments between April and June, with patients more likely declining to go to hospitals when compared with the previous year. Due to declining transports, opioid overdoses nearly doubled from 7.7% last year to 14.3% this year.

Taverna said opioid overdoses “fell pretty meaningfully” for whites in 2018, which is the most recent year death mortality data has been documented. However, overdoses have climbed in the Black community, due to what MDHHS referenced as “long standing racial disparities.”

Since MDHHS is able to identify EMS calls and emergency visits by geography and race, Taverna said MDHHS “saw a broad-based increase” in overdoses for Black people. Actually, all demographic groups went up.

“We tend to look at the rate of overdose by population, so that you’re competing on an apples-to-apples basis,” she said. “What we see there is very concerning.”

When dissecting data, MDDHS looks at broad trends. That is the method being used as the pandemic wages on.

“What the department does is try to discuss with stakeholders, treatment providers, other organizations involved in the opioid crisis,” Taverna said. “We try to build out hypotheses for what we may see in the data.”

There are two subheads to looking at trends, including taking into account stress levels and how it’s impacted both by coronavirus and by a large and calamitous economic recession.

“Both stress and economic stress are big risk factors for substance abuse disorders,” she said.

And when it comes to isolation, the effects are more acute for those with substance abuse disorders due to stress, anxiety and various personal challenges. Not being able to interact in person with peer recovery groups causes disruptions and has led many to return to using substances.

There is no way to discern who and how many individuals have reverted back to using, Taverna said.

“A small silver lining of the opioid crisis is that we have quite good evidence of what works well,” she said.

That includes carrying Naloxone, whether you’re a user or know someone who has used. Taverna said “it’s always better to be safe than sorry” when an overdose can suddenly occur.

Aside from an online portal launched by MDHHS, people can request and receive Naloxone through the mail. Those with substance abuse disorders who decline treatment are able to get sterile syringes for administering Naloxone, or simple healthcare that tests for hepatitis and HIV.

Taverna added that her department has received “super positive feedback” about innovative practices like tele-medicine, changing how medicine is being delivered. Resources for crisis counseling and emotional support remain available.

“I would not describe it as helplessness, but I would say it’s highly concerning and pushes us to do more than we already do,” she said.

For more information, visit michigan.gov/opioids.