Most Michiganders probably couldn’t find Ogemaw County on a map.
But the people who raked in billions of dollars shipping and selling the prescription opioids that fueled a decade-plus addiction epidemic in the United States almost certainly knew how to find the rural northern Michigan county and its 21,000 residents.
Statistics collected and analyzed by state and federal officials between 2012 and 2014 indicated the opioid crisis that pummeled wide swaths of our country somehow dealt an outsized punch to the small-rural county situated about 100 miles southeast of Traverse City, just north of the Mitten State’s palm.
Numbers show, during those years, Ogemaw County led the state’s drug overdose mortality rate rankings with nearly double the statewide average.
Now, by the grace of two newspapers that waged a yearlong legal battle to unseal Drug Enforcement Administration pain pill tracking data, we have some indication why Ogemaw County was hit harder than any other in our state.
Data uncovered and published by the Washington Post and the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia show drug manufacturers produced and shipped 76 billion hydrocodone and oxycodone pills to communities nationwide between 2006 and 2012. That’s more than 230 pills per person who lived in the United States during those years.
The DEA data, generated by a tracking system for every pain pill produced and sold, show drug makers and distributors sent 19.17 million hydrocodone and oxycodone pills combined to Ogemaw County pharmacies — 125.7 pills per person, per year.
That’s not as many as were shipped to the Appalachian counties hardest hit by the opioid crisis — some received more than 200 pills per person, per year — but it’s enough pills to raise alarm.
Even the 48.8 pills per person, per year shipped to Grand Traverse County during those years should have elicited pause.
Think about it this way, most children we know don’t consume prescription opioids, so cut them from the numbers. And lets be generous in estimating that 50 percent of our neighbors have some illness that requires constant pain medications.
By that back-of-the-napkin math, there were enough pills flowing into Ogemaw county during those years to allow half the adult population to consume at least one opioid pill every day.
Today, many who were involved in the system that supplied the pills that fueled the epidemic lean on arguments that they were just cogs in a machine that supplied legal drugs that were legally prescribed to American consumers.
How could anybody who saw those numbers not wonder if something awful was happening?
Both epidemiologists and statisticians have drawn links between the flow of prescription painkillers to the rise of opioid addiction in the United States.
Comparisons between the newly released data and other government data tracking opioid overdoses by county show a clear relationship between the flow of prescription painkillers and overdose deaths.
It’s a link court, law enforcement and treatment experts have made for years, as they struggled against what seemed like an unending tide of damage dealt to our communities by the epidemic.
Families were destroyed, sons and daughters lost to overdose and irreparable addiction, and government services overwhelmed by previously unimaginable need.
Now, in courthouses across the U.S., states and local municipalities — including Grand Traverse County and Traverse City — are fighting lawsuits against the companies that manufactured and distributed those pills.
They hope to claw back enough money to help offset the enormous costs already incurred by the opioid crisis that continues to take a toll on our families and our communities.
But we’re left wonder whether it will be enough?
Because the damage caused by opioid crisis likely will outlive us all.