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Staten Island Family Advocating For New Artificial Intelligence Program That Aims To Prevent Drug Overdoses

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork) -- So many families have felt the pain of losing a loved one to a drug overdose, and now, new artificial intelligence technology is being used to help prevent such tragedies.

"When you have a family member who lives this lifestyle, it's a call you always know could come," Megan Wohltjen said.

Wohltjen's brother, Samuel Grunlund, died of an overdose in March 2020, just two days after leaving a treatment facility. He was 27.

"Very happy person. He was extremely athletic. Really intelligent, like, straight A student ... He started, you know, smoking marijuana and then experimenting with other drugs," Wohltjen told CBS2's Natalie Duddridge.

"He wanted to get clean and addiction just destroyed his life," said Maura Grunlund, Sam's mother.

Since Sam's death, his mother and sister have been advocating for a new program they believe could have saved him. It's called "Hotspotting the Opioid Crisis."

Researchers at MIT developed artificial intelligence that aims to stop an overdose before it happens.

"This project has never been tried before, and it's an effort to combine highly innovative predictive analytics and an AI-based algorithm to identify those who are most at risk of an overdose," said former congressman Max Rose, with the Secure Future Project.

The technology screens thousands of medical records through data sharing with doctors, pharmacies and law enforcement.

For example, over time, it might flag if a known drug user missed a treatment session, didn't show up to court or, in Sam's case, just completed a rehab program. It then alerts health care professionals.

"I'm just calling to check in to see how things are going," said Dr. Joseph Conte, executive director of Staten Island Performing Provider System.

Conte says the program trains dozens of peer advocates who themselves are recovering addicts. They reach out to at-risk individuals and find out what they need -- from jobs to housing to therapy.

There's no pressure on the patient to enter rehab. The goal is to keep them alive.

"We can't help them if they're dead ... If you're not ready for treatment, you should be ready for harm reduction. You should have Narcan available if you or a friend overdoses," Conte said.

Health officials say a record number of people, 100,000, died of overdoses in 2020.

This year alone on Staten Island, more than 70 people have fatally overdosed.

The number of opioid deaths per 100,000 people on Staten Island is about 170% higher than the national rate. Officials say fentanyl is largely to blame, and the lethal drug was found in 80% of Staten Island toxicology reports.

"I believe that my son would be alive today if he hadn't used fentanyl ... I really feel that if this was any other disease, people would be up in arms," Maura Grunlund said.

Wohltjen says her brother always encouraged her to run the New York City Marathon, so this year, she did it, wearing his Little League baseball hat and raising thousands of dollars for the Partnership to End Addiction.

"If we could save one life it would make a difference," Wohltjen said.

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