Wayne County working to combat opioid abuse

Karen Bouffard
The Detroit News

Drug antidote kits distributed to first responders in Wayne County have saved 39 lives, it was announced Thursday at the county’s second annual Opioid Summit in Livonia.

More than 1,800 kits have been distributed since March 2016 by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (DWMHA) during training sessions for police, firefighters and community members, presenters said.

The Opioid Abuse and Heroin Overdose Solution Summit drew about 500 professionals who are on the front lines of the county’s battle against drug overdose deaths. Among the participants were policymakers, community leaders, law enforcement officers, firefighters and health care providers who used the occasion to assess the magnitude of the problem in southeast Michigan and brainstorm on how to save lives.

At least 848 people died of drug overdoses in Wayne County last year. It’s part of a nationwide drug epidemic that resulted in 52,404 overdose deaths across the United States in 2015, including nearly 2,000 in Michigan.

Presenters, including Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, laid out a broad strategy that includes prevention, treatment and emergency help including distribution of life-saving naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan, a nasal spray that blocks the deadly effects of opioids.

Calley issued a call to action, saying the opioid epidemic “is a health care issue and requires a health care response.”

“Communities have a vital and essential role in making a difference,” Calley said. “We need more second chances and fewer funerals.”

Other strategies include drug take-back boxes inside police stations for the return of unused opioid prescription medications to prevent potential abuse and training for primary care doctors on ways to prescribe opioids to prevent addiction.

Dr. Debra A Pinals, medical director of Behavioral Health and Forensic Programs with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, outlined the department’s efforts including a package of opioid-fighting bills introduced March 23 in Lansing. Other initiatives are preparing pharmacists to provide counseling on naloxone and other treatment medications, and formulating policy to ensure broad access to evidence-based treatment options.

“The commitment to ensuring that people are getting treatment is at the root of that policy discussion,” Pinals said.

Macomb County Judge Linda Davis, of 41B District Court, talked about the Macomb County Drug Court she founded after experiencing a family member’s addiction. She also helped found Operation Rx Macomb County, a project to prevent substance abuse, addiction and overdoses.

“I look around this room and I know there are several families here who are fighting this battle,” Davis said, adding the community must come together to solve the problem.

“If you’re feuding in your community with different groups you need to fix it,” Davis said, “because kids are dying.”

After his presentation, Calley was asked whether proposed federal cuts to health care funding could hurt efforts to address the crisis. Michigan and the Trump administration are “on the same page when it comes to the opioid epidemic,” Calley said. “There are a lot of unknowns but a lot of determination (to address the problem of opioid deaths).

The summit, hosted by the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority and the Greater Detroit Area Health Council, was created last year to discuss the national crisis that impacts individuals from all demographics and affects families, job markets, health care costs and greatly impacts the law enforcement communities.

Officials from the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority presented work to distribute that provides training on the use of the naloxone kits. The county also is placing drug disposal bags and drug take-back boxes throughout the county to get opioids off the streets.

“We have to look locally at what is contributing to this epidemic and we need to join forces with law enforcement, mental health, substance abuse and primary care to address this problem,” said Cynthia L. Arfken, a Wayne State University professor and epidemiologist involved in the county’s response efforts. “I hope this (summit) will activate new ways of looking at prevention.”

The summit followed Tuesday’s visit to Lansing by officials from the Trump administration who had touted the president’s “unquestionable commitment” to reversing the national epidemic despite questions over potential budget cuts. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price and White House Counselor Kellyanne Conway joined Gov. Rick Snyder to kick off an “opioid listening session” tour and meet with state policymakers, first responders and others involved in the fight against prescription pain-killer abuse.