James “Jim” Tononi of Clinton Township was “a beautiful and compassionate soul” who had almost four months of sobriety before he died of an opioid overdose last summer. He was 25.

Tononi is among nearly 50 Michigan residents remembered on “Celebrating Lost Loved Ones,” an interactive map where families can memorialize overdose victims. Each dot identifies a place where somebody died and offers a picture and information about that person.

It’s one of the ways that geographic information systems technology is being used to battle an opioid epidemic that resulted in 33,000 U.S. deaths in 2016, including 1,689 in Michigan — and it’s featured on a new Oakland County web portal dedicated to fighting overdose deaths.

Using interactive maps at the portal, visitors can view the location of overdose deaths in the county, find a drop box to dispose of unused prescriptions, locate a treatment center close to where they live or look for recovery meetings. The site is open to the public and can be accessed by anyone.

“I put my son on there because I want to honor the life he lived and make other people aware of the tragedy he suffered,” said Denise Tononi, Jim’s mother.

Residents from Allen Park, Melvindale, Westland, Lapeer, Greenville and Manistee are among about 1,000 people memorialized on the interactive map of the U.S. and Canada.

“(The epidemic) is huge, and maybe the map can demonstrate how big it is and how far reaching,” Tononi added. “These are real people, just like us.”


Phil Bertolini, Deputy Oakland County Executive, discusses the mapping system that tracks opioid overdoses with Kathy Forzley, Director of Oakland County’s Health and Human Services Department, as the county deals with this epidemic. Max Ortiz, The Detroit News

The expansion of the technology is another tool in the battle as a national panel on Monday urged President Donald Trump to declare a national emergency.

The president’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis noted the magnitude of the death toll in its preliminary report released Monday. The panel said Trump could make the declaration under the Public Health Service Act or the Stafford Act.

“With approximately 142 Americans dying every day, America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks,” the commission noted.

The report found early support in Michigan. At the governor’s office, Laura Biehl, spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, said: “The addiction epidemic is destroying lives and families every day.”

She said Calley, who is leading the state’s efforts to address the epidemic, “believes it is an emergency and needs to be treated as such.”

The Oakland County portal is the first phase of an ambitious countywide plan that will eventually include maps for internal use by first responders, health officials and health care providers. Those maps will include details to help Oakland officials identify hot spots and target resources where they’re most needed.

About 40 groups involved in the Oakland County Prescription Drug Abuse Partnership — from law enforcement to health care providers, courts and nonprofits — are contributing to the effort, providing local insights and data needed to track the epidemic.

“Now that we’ve got the public education ... portal up, we are turning our attention to these internal efforts,” said Tammi Shepherd, a chief in the application services division at Oakland Information Technology.

Naloxone succeses

A top priority will be mapping the locations where overdose victims are saved by the opioid antidote naloxone. Because it can take weeks before toxicology tests are completed to confirm which drug was involved in an overdose, researchers believe that tracking naloxone “saves” can provide immediate clues of drug outbreaks.

Naloxone can revive people who overdose on opioids like hydrocodone, morphine or heroin. But when super-powerful opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil are involved, multiple doses of the life-saving antidote are often needed.

“Getting that real-time information is very, very difficult to do,” said Kathy Forzley, director of the Oakland County Health and Human Services Department. “By taking a look at how many doses (of naloxone) that took for that save will tell us something about that drug that was being utilized. Even if we don’t get that information any other way, this will start to paint a picture.”

County officials unveiled the public portal in July before about 17,000 government leaders from around the country at the Esri User Conference 2017 in San Diego. Formerly known as the Environment Systems Research Institute, Esri provides GIS (geographic information systems) technology to about 90 percent of local governments nationally, the company says.

Oakland was showcased because of its innovative use of GIS — technology that can store, manipulate and analyze all kinds of geographic information. The county uses it to map everything from infrastructure repairs and outstanding tax bills, to the locations where residents can find cider mills or dark skies for star-gazing.

“In working with Esri, they wanted to highlight us to inspire the rest of their users,” Shepherd said.

Public health tool

GIS technology allows agencies to aggregate layer upon layer of data from multiple sources to see what picture will emerge. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uses GIS to track Ebola and other infectious disease outbreaks.

“We’re currently working to establish which elements would help provide the best picture of activity and need in the state,” said Jennifer Eisner, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Eisner said there are limits on what can be learned from such mapping, such as the quality of available data that under-represents the number of overdose incidents.

“This is due to a number of reasons, including differences in reporting,” Eisner said. “It’s also worth noting that administration of naloxone by EMS does not conclusively indicate an overdose.”

Still, the ability to visualize the opioid epidemic is a powerful public health tool, said Phil Bertolini, deputy Oakland County executive and chief information officer.

“The problem is you have individual sets of data that may tell individual stories,” Bertolini said. “(We’re) trying to find a way to take that data, put it together, and then have it teach us what we need to do, whether it be through education ... or (through) law enforcement ... or working with those who are actually prescribing the drugs.

“If we can find a way to take this data and make solid proactive decisions from it, than it could save someone’s life.”

Twitter: @kbouffardDM

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