BAY COUNTY, MI — The three-pronged attack on the ongoing heroin epidemic needling Bay County is taking form.
"The Bay County Heroin Task Force is utilizing a multiagency coordinating approach to the unified incident command system," said Bay County Health Department Director Joel Strasz. "There are three main areas of the task force — law enforcement/courts, treatment providers, and public health/prevention."
Appointed as the unified commander of the law enforcement/courts division is Bay County Undersheriff Troy Cunningham. "The sheriff's office is the largest law enforcement agency in the county," Strasz said regarding Cunningham's selection. "They have a wide jurisdiction, and it makes sense really to have someone with those ties with all the local departments, whether it's the city, the townships, or the state police. He's got good connections with the court systems and some of the treatment providers out there. It's a really good fit, a good conduit to the other groups working as well." Strasz is acting as Cunningham's counterpart in the public health/prevention sector, and Dr. William Morrone is in charge of the treatment provider division. Morrone is Bay County's chief deputy medical examiner and chief medical officer for Recovery Pathways in Bay City and Ortonville.
In his new position, Cunningham "will coordinate law enforcement and court efforts as much as he can for the general strategy of the task force," Strasz said.
"It's extremely important to get the knowledge and education out there on the dangers of heroin," Cunningham said. "We've got several things we're putting together to get this task force up and going."
In June, the Bay County Board of Commissioners unanimously authorized the Health Department to seek grant funding to equip police and other first responders with naloxone. The substance is an opioid antagonist administered to those in the grips of an overdose. Once the substance is delivered into the overdose victim's system, the sufferer is almost immediately brought out of the opiate's grip.
Cunningham said deputies are training in the use of naloxone and they'll have it in their patrol vehicles.
Strasz's agency in June issued a public health advisory regarding the surge of opiate-related overdoses. That advisory remains in effect.
In the wake of the advisory, several public town halls were held for officials and citizens to discuss the issue. In one hosted by state Rep. Charles M. Brunner, D-Bay City, on Nov. 9, Cunningham said Bay County had a total 117 reported drug overdoses in 2014, compared to 183 at that point in 2015.
According to preliminary autopsy reports, 25 people in 2015 died of drug overdoses, Strasz has said. For comparison, 18 people died of overdoses in 2014, 21 in 2013, and 24 in 2012.
On Friday, Feb. 12, Strasz participated in a meeting with county officials and experts to put together a comprehensive, community-based strategy to arrest the problem. Strasz said the plan is still in development but should be rolled out in May.