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Opioid epidemic left Kent County Sheriff's Department feeling 'helpless'

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As opioid related deaths continue to rise to historic heights, health officials gathered Friday at Grand Valley State University to discuss an epidemic that has claimed the lives of thousands of state residents. To put in perspective just how bad the opioid epidemic has gotten in the state of Michigan, more people died of an overdose in 2017 (2,033) than the number of traffic accident related deaths and gun related deaths combined, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. While 2018’s numbers haven’t been finalized, the evidence suggests the numbers can’t be good; overdose deaths in Michigan have nearly tripled over the last 5 years.

Discussing the crisis Friday were a handful of health and law enforcement officials at the Health Forum of West Michigan, including Kent County Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young. I asked her point blank, so just how bad is it here in West Michigan?

“You know helpless, if you asked me four years ago, I would absolutely say helpless we were going from one overdose after another.”

I also spoke with Steve Alsum, he’s the Executive Director of the Grand Rapids Red Project, a non-profit that provides the overdose reversal drug Naloxone. He says unlike other drugs, the epidemic transcends socioeconomic boundaries.

“Opioids effect all segments of the community.”

Still, Sheriff LaJoye-Young says, there is hope, as law enforcement is beginning to shift its focus from not only enforcing the law but helping those they come across get help.

“The real ticket is going to be education and long term treatment,” LaJoye-Young said.

Nationwide, the epidemic is even more alarming. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more people died in 2017 from an opioid related overdose than the number of US soldiers in the Vietnam War.

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