Michigan overdose deaths down first time in six years, but not among African Americans

Overdose deaths have declined in Michigan for the first time in six years.

The Department of Health and Human Services announced the news Friday afternoon, with a 3.2 percent drop from 2017. 

"This is a step in the right direction, however, there is much work to be done, particularly when it comes to disparities and access to treatment," said Dr. Joneigh Khaldun, chief medical executive and chief deputy for health for MDHHS.

The decline, albeit a slight one with only 87 fewer people in 2018, still represents a gradual shift in a state that's been rocked by an opioid epidemic that has blanketed the country. The Centers for Disease and Control report Michigan was among 23 states that saw a significant increase in drug overdose deaths from 2016 to 2017. Michigan also ranked 8th in opioid deaths in 2017.

Of the 2,599 overdose deaths in 2018, 2,036 were opioid-related. In 2017, the opioid-related deaths were 2,053. 

MDHHS said the decline was largely due to decreases in heroin and prescription deaths, like the painkiller oxycodone. Despite this decline, the state also reported an increase in deaths connected to fentanyl - a synthetic drug considered much more potent than other painkillers.

In mid-May this year, the Bloomberg Foundation announced plans to commit $10 million to Michigan to fight the opioid crisis, the second of 10 states that would receive money. 

Beneath the good news is a collection of dark statistics, however: overdose deaths declined for all races in Michigan, except for black residents. The number of black people in Michigan who died from an overdose increased by 14.7 percent. Overdose deaths for white people declined by 6.5 percent and 9.1 percent for all other races other than black residents. 

That state says it has several tools in place to lower the racial disparity at play, including a $1 million statewide anti-stigma campaign, offering toolkits for medical providers on safer opioid prescribing practices, and expanding syringe service programs.

Gov. Whitmer has also announced plans in August to build an Opioid Task Force that would map out a plan across several state departments.