As recently as twenty years ago, the county saw only a few heroin deaths a year—mostly older men who’d been longtime users. But then overuse of painkillers like Oxycontin created a new generation of opioid addicts. When legal supplies were cut back, many switched to black-market heroin—which increasingly is laced with fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller that’s far more deadly. By the mid-2010s, it was killing one person a week in Washtenaw County. 

Deaths peaked in 2018 at eighty-one, then fell to sixty-one in the first year of the pandemic. But last year they rose again, to seventy-one. Since most of the victims were under forty, says Washtenaw County Health Department spokesperson Susan Ringler-Cerniglia, “it’s likely that those opiate deaths are a leading cause of death in our younger group.”

“It’s a little hard to separate whether that’s an ongoing trend versus pandemic-related,” she adds.  Pre-Covid, “there was already a lot of evidence of declining mental health among youth.” That was “exacerbated by the pandemic”—and “mental health and addiction [are] very intertwined and always have been … 

“The really troublesome thing is we’re seeing more contamination in the drug supply and even more powerful synthetics being mixed in.” They’ve seen a couple of “multiple overdose incidents, where more than one person overdosed in the same time and place—and even “some evidence of what looks like people unwittingly ingesting opioids.”