GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Death records obtained by Target 8 show a significant spike in fatal overdoses in West Michigan, particularly in April, May and June.
Those three months corresponded roughly with the state’s stay-at-home order, which began March 23 and ended June 1.
The Department of Pathology at Western Michigan University serves as a medical examiner for 12 counties, mostly in southwest Michigan.
According to researchers at the department, there were 103 fatal overdoses in those dozen counties from April through June, 2020, compared to 56 for the same three months in 2019.
In five of those counties, fatal overdoses doubled in those three months, increasing from 14 to 27 in Kalamazoo County, 12 to 25 in Muskegon County and 6 to 14 in Calhoun County.
Overdose deaths went from 6 to 11 in Berrien County and three to seven in Grand Traverse County.
In the same three months in Kent County, fatal overdoses spiked by 76%, from 21 in 2019 to 37 in 2020.
The average age of those who died was 39, with the youngest being 18 and the oldest being 67.
Seventy percent were men.
One of those men was Tony “Bubba” Mills, 29, from Battle Creek.
“My son was a loving, caring child,” said Tracey Love, who found her beloved son dead on May 10, Mother’s Day, in the home they shared in Battle Creek.
“I want other people to know what happens,” said Love tearfully from the living room of her home. “How (substance abuse) doesn’t only hurt (those using drugs), it hurts their loved ones, too, because I am hurting so bad from this,” Love said.
Love says her son had struggled with heroin addiction for years, following a difficult adolescence.
“He was gay, and I think that’s another reason we were so close. You know, when he was younger, he was bullied. He had a lot going on in his life. It was hard for him to find love,” said Love.
Love knew her son was hurting because he’d shared his pain with her after an overdose four days prior to the one that took his life.
Love saved him that time with Naloxone, the drug that reverses the effects of an overdose.
“When I brought him back, he said, ‘Mama, why didn’t you just let me go?’ And I said, ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘Because I’m hurting, I’m tired of my life being controlled (by heroin).'”
Love is heartbroken they didn’t seek help immediately following the first overdose.
“I just wished I would have done things different. But I was so close to Tony that I didn’t want people to know. I wasn’t embarrassed of my son by any means, but I just wanted people to think he was doing good — He wasn’t.”
Mills had gotten out of jail a week or so before his death, so his system was relatively clean, leaving his body more vulnerable to overdose.
Despite his depression, Love thinks his overdose on fentanyl-laced heroin was accidental.
She also says Mills was frustrated over the COVID-19 shutdown because it prevented him from trying to get a job to help her pay bills.
Detective 1st Lt. Rick Pazder of the Michigan State Police noted it’s impossible to know all the factors playing into the increase in overdoses.
But Pazder thinks stressors related to COVID-19 and the shutdown it prompted may have played a part.
“We all remember shortages of various items at the grocery stores along with concerns about food shortages and the uncertainties of how lethal COVID-19 was going to be,” wrote Pazder in an email exchange with Target 8.
“Add to that the stresses of being in semi-isolation, worrying about your job or business and having your routine disrupted. These stressors affected people in various ways and unfortunately, some turned to substance use, increased their substance use or found it difficult not to relapse,” Pazder wrote.
Pazder, who oversees the Southwest Michigan Enforcement Team, said the shutdown also led to a disruption in the supply of crystal methamphetamine in West Michigan.
Pazder thinks that may have prompted some meth users to switch to fentanyl, which is cheaper and deadlier.
“During the same time frame, we did not see the same indicators of a disruption in the supply of fentanyl. The lack of one with the availability of another may have caused some people to begin using fentanyl in the absence of crystal meth,” wrote Pazder, noting that switching to fentanyl can prove deadly to new users.
He also theorized that fentanyl users might have experienced periods where they were unable to obtain the drug, thus lowering their body’s tolerance when they resumed use.
State and federal health officials expressed deep concern regarding the spike in overdose deaths in West Michigan.
“MDHHS is profoundly concerned about data suggesting that overdoses have increased during the pandemic,” wrote Lynn Sutfin, public information office with the state’s health department.
“This is an incredibly stressful and difficult moment for all of us and especially for those facing substance use disorders,” wrote Sutfin, noting that MDHHS has expanded telemedicine access, is offering naloxone to any community group that requests it and beginning a new program with EMS to leave behind extra naloxone kits after overdose calls.
MDHHS published a seven-page document with resources and substantive tips for people struggling with substance abuse during COVID-19.
The federal agency tasked with coordinating mental health and substance abuse treatment is urging people to seek assistance 24/7 through its national helpline at 1.800.662.HELP (4357) or online at https://findtreatment.samhsa.gov/
You can also reach the National Distress Helpline 24/7 at 1.800.985.5990 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1.800.273.8255 or by texting TALK to 741741.
“SAMHSA has been very concerned and very vocal about the increased mental health effects and increase in substance misuse during the pandemic,” wrote a spokesperson for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in an email exchange with Target 8.
“The stressors imposed by not only the virus itself, but also virus containment strategies, have not surprisingly led to increases in overdoses across the country. SAMHSA is committed to continuing to provide much-needed services and supports in the community to advance the use of medication-assisted treatment,” SAMHSA wrote.