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Deaths Involving Fentanyl on the Rise: Milwaukee County Drug Overdose Deaths Reached Record Number in 2019

Milwaukee – April 17, 2020 – Recent data released from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office showed 2019 as a record year for fatal drug overdoses in Milwaukee County. Drug overdoses killed 418 individuals in 2019 compared to the previous record of 401 deaths in 2017. Eight in ten of these deaths involved opioids or synthetic opioids and 75% of the deaths involved more than one substance. While the deaths involving heroin declined 21% from 2017 to 2019, the deaths involving fentanyl rose 29% in the same two-year period.

Law enforcement continues to see an increase in fentanyl-related seizures in the Milwaukee area. Fentanyl is being distributed both by itself and in mixtures with other drugs, including heroin and cocaine. Individuals who are using drugs that are not prescribed to them may not know what drugs are in a substance and in what quantity.

Across Milwaukee County, there are numerous initiatives to prevent overdose deaths. Public health, police, emergency medical services and community service organizations in jurisdictions throughout Milwaukee County are working to connect individuals to treatment if they are using illicit substances or misusing prescription medications. In addition, Milwaukee County has a multi-disciplinary review team that examines fatal overdoses and identifies gaps in services and barriers to treatment that can be addressed to prevent overdose fatalities.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), opioid overdose signs include:

  • Small, constricted pupils
  • Falling asleep or loss of consciousness
  • Slow, shallow breathing
  • Choking or gurgling sounds – often confused with snoring
  • Limp body
  • Pale, blue, or cold skin

Individuals can take important steps to reduce their risk of an opioid overdose. Never use drugs alone, have naloxone (Narcan®) available, and utilize fentanyl test strips. Naloxone is a medication that can reverse an opioid overdose and can be given as a nasal spray or an injection. Fentanyl test strips can be used to determine if fentanyl is present in a substance. Vivent Health provides judgement-free harm reduction services including sterile syringes and supplies, fentanyl test strips, opioid overdose prevention and naloxone.

Friends and family play a critical role by recognizing the signs of overdose, calling 911 immediately, and administering naloxone. Naloxone is safe to give and will not harm someone who is not having an opioid overdose. Naloxone is available without a prescription from select local pharmacies. Visit the Wisconsin Department of Health Service's Naloxone Directory for a list of pharmacies where you can request naloxone for yourself or a loved one. In addition, agencies throughout Milwaukee County provide naloxone. Visit the Narcan Direct Map to find an agency near you. If you know someone who needs treatment or connection to other non-emergency services, please call 211. Treatment services can also be located on the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website.

“Calling 911 when overdose occurs is still an essential part of increasing the survivability from overdose,” says Joshua Parish, Deputy Chief of Emergency Medical Services for the Milwaukee Fire Department. "Items on the illicit market increasingly contain other substances that may require treatment beyond the skillset of a bystander. Early access to skilled medical providers can improve the long-term outcome for someone experiencing an overdose.”

To avoid misuse of prescription opioids, always dispose of unused prescription drugs by taking them to a disposal drop box at Milwaukee Police Department Districts 2-7 or the Milwaukee Municipal Court on James Lovell Street or visit mmsd.com. Free postage paid drug disposal envelopes are available at CVS pharmacies throughout Milwaukee County.

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