Kent Co. OD deaths drop, upward trend continues

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Drug overdose deaths in Kent County decreased by 42 in 2018, dropping to 114 after a historical high of 156 in 2017.

But those on the frontlines of the opioid war said the 2018 decline should not give anyone false optimism.

“We definitely don’t want to say that we’ve been successful in addressing this epidemic or this is by any means over,” said Steve Alsum, executive director of the Grand Rapids Red Project.

“Currently there’s around a hundred people who die of opioid overdoses in Kent County each year… That’s still a huge number of people dying in our community. It’s still the leading cause of accidental death in our community,” Alsum said.  

Alsum called 2017’s spike in overdose deaths a “fluke” and said 2018’s number is more in line with the last decade’s upward trend.

Even with the general increase in fatal overdoses, Alsum noted that Kent County’s overdose death rate is much lower than those of similar-sized counties.

“If you look at the opioid overdose mortality rates in about the eleven or twelve other largest counties in Michigan, they’re typically two to three times as high as they are in Kent County. So really, what that means and what that shows is the impact The Red Project doing Naloxone distribution has had on Kent County over the last 10 years,” Alsum said.

The Red Project, founded as a needle exchange program in 1998, has distributed more than 10,000 free Naloxone kits since it started handing them out in 2008.

Carrie Ross works at The Grand Rapids Red Project training groups on how to save lives with Naloxone.

She knows firsthand the life-saving difference it makes.

The 34-year-old was in recovery, volunteering for The Red Project, when she did Naloxone training for some buddies with whom she used to use heroin.

“I had gotten into recovery and was like, ‘well, this needs to get in their hands because they’re opiate users,” Ross recalled.

“So I had taken it up to Belding at the time and trained them how to use it, and left it there with them. And then, six months or so later, I relapsed and I was with them. So I was at that house. And I used, and I overdosed.”

The friend Ross had trained, hoping it would one day save their lives, ultimately saved her own.

“(My friends) said, ‘we gave you Narcan (Naloxone) when your lips turned blue,” Ross said.

“I looked around and I said this is not my life, and I got up and walked out.”

That was three years ago.

Ross has been clean from heroin since.

“I was a hopeless case…. You can’t write someone off because they’re stuck in a hole. Kicking dope is like the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Ross said. 

But she’s doing it.

One day at a time.

Kent County fatal overdoses

2018 – 114

2017 – 156

2016 – 93

2015 – 109

2014 – 75

2013 – 77

2012 – 97

2011 – 69

Of the 114 deaths in 2018, Fentanyl was the deadliest.

The synthetic opioid, which is 70 to 100 times more powerful morphine, was the drug of the first mention in 39 deaths.

Cocaine was the primary drug responsible in 16 deaths, followed by heroin, which killed 14 people.

A variety of other opioid painkillers, including Oxycodone, Hydrocodone, and Methadone, were the first drugs listed in 21 deaths. 

The youngest person to die of an overdose in Kent County in 2018 was 14, the oldest was 69.

While many of the 114 deaths were accidental, some were suicides.

So far in 2019, there’ve been 17 fatal overdoses in Kent County, which is fewer deaths than this time last year.

Ottawa County also reports a decrease in fatal drug overdoses in 2018.

The lakeshore county recorded 21 overdose deaths in 2018, compared to 30 in 2017, 24 in 2016 and 22 in 2015.

Other West Michigan Counties:


2017 – 12

2018 – 11


2018 – 5


2017 – 52

2018 – 55


2017 – 79

2018 – 74


2017 – 54

2018 – 51

Van Buren

2017* – At least 19 deaths, as we took over as ME in March of 2017

2018 – 11

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