Kent County sees record opioid deaths in 2017

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The Kent County Health Department says a record number of people died as a result of opioids in Kent County last year, with indications for 2018 pointing toward another banner year.

Adam London, health officer for the Kent County Health Department, says 93 people died as a result of opioid overdoses last year. That’s up from 65 in 2016 and 84 in 2015.

Last year’s number could rise even further.

“I actually expect that’s going to go up a little bit as some pending cases from the end of the year, the toxicology comes back on those,” London told 24 Hour News 8 Tuesday. “Every third day, someone is dying from opioid overdose in Kent County. That’s a huge problem.”

London said he believed this year’s numbers were on track to be the same or worse. He said specific numbers weren’t available because of how long it takes for toxicology reports to come back.

“It’s a huge deal,” London said. “It is a crisis. It’s a crisis everywhere in the country.”

The health department hopes to get some added help in the fight with the addition of a new position: an epidemiologist that will focus exclusively on the opioid crisis.

“I think we can do better in the areas of prevention — preventing people from becoming addicted to begin with and in treatment,” London said, explaining what the new epidemiologist would do. “Helping to facilitate a community response to these problems and bringing the resources and focusing the energies of other organizations … to really bear down on making progress in these problem areas.”

London said the position would cost taxpayers about $95,000 a year.

“It’s absolutely worth the cost of doing this,” he said. “In fact, we really need more than this.”

While numbers of deaths increase nationwide, so too has media coverage of the crisis. Target 8 has covered the fight against opioids extensively. Still, London said the stigma around drug addiction prevents people from talking about it in regular discourse.

“We need to stop that. We need to overcome that obstacle,” London said. “We need to talk openly and publicly about these problems if we’re going to solve them.”

James Moskowitz says he is among those who has seen what opioid addiction can do. He says he is a recovering addict who had to seek professional help to free him from the restraints of addiction. He says he hasn’t used opioids since December.

“I was taking OxyContin, Oxycodone, Tylenol 3 with codeine, Norco, and Vicodin,” Moscowitz told 24 Hour News 8. “Some of it I was stealing from my own wife.”

He underscored the seriousness of the epidemic.

“It could destroy you and it could destroy your family,” Moskowitz said. “Please do not use it.”

The health department is also looking to add an epidemiologist to deal with environmental concerns like the PFAS contamination in the Rockford area. If the county commission approves the addition of both positions, that would bring the total number of epidemiologists working for the Kent County Health Department to five.

The county commission will vote on the staff additions Thursday, Landon said.

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