Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the number of drug overdose deaths in Milwaukee County for 2019 and to update the number of male victims.
A record high of 404 drug overdose deaths occurred in Milwaukee County last year, surpassing the previous high of 401 in 2017, according to data from the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office.
The grim tally is sure to go up, as 17 more probable overdose cases are pending further toxicology reports, said Karen Domagalski, operations manager at the office. There were 384 drug overdose deaths in 2018.
“It’s disheartening to know that so many people are losing their lives,” said Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the City-County Heroin, Opioid, and Cocaine Task Force. “The goal is obviously to get more and more people into treatment.”
The increase in deaths surprised and saddened Michelle Jaskulski, senior director of faith and family programs for the Washington, D.C.-based Addiction Policy Forum. Jaskulski, who lives in Cudahy, became involved in the movement after experiencing her two sons struggle with addiction. She said a combination of factors could be contributing to the increase, including easy access to drugs in the area.
“But there’s also a lack of accessible resources, especially detox services for those who are addicted,” she said.
By the numbers
Of the 404 drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2019, the majority (236) involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can kill in trace amounts and is often used as a cutting agent for heroin, cocaine and other drugs. Of the deaths, 128 were heroin related; 174 were caused by cocaine alone or in combination; and 17 involved methamphetamines. The number of heroin-related deaths has decreased for two consecutive years, while cocaine-related deaths increased in each of the past two years.
Murphy said people should pay close attention to the rise in cocaine-related deaths, which could be related to people shying away from heroin.
“I’m hearing anecdotally that people are moving away from heroin to cocaine because of the huge number of deaths, but what they don’t realize is that it’s probably drug dealers that are mixing it with fentanyl,” said Murphy regarding the increase.
Of the overdose victims, 274 were men and 130 were women. The youngest victim was just 15 months old, while the oldest was 88.
The South Side of Milwaukee continues to be the city’s drug overdose hotspot, with 38 deaths occurring in the 53204 ZIP code, and 46 recorded in the adjoining 53215. Other ZIP code areas in Milwaukee that have been hit hard by drug overdose deaths include 53210 (23) and 53208 (21), although a total of 17 ZIP code areas recorded at least 10 overdose deaths.
The medical examiner’s data goes back to 2002, when 109 deaths occurred. Data from the medical examiner’s office suggests that the trend has continued or could even be accelerating into 2020. While only three drug overdose deaths have been confirmed in 2020, another 49 probable overdose cases are pending. If all are confirmed, the total of 52 would surpass the 45 overdose deaths that occurred through Feb. 10, 2019.
Efforts to address the epidemic
Some help to address the epidemic in Milwaukee is on the way. The City of Milwaukee Health Department was recently awarded a $730,000 grant from the National Association of City County Health Officials to expand the Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative, a pilot program launched on the South Side. The program, a collaboration between the health department, Milwaukee Fire Department and other community partners, involves having peer counselors ride with paramedics six days a week to talk to people who overdosed, but were resuscitated, Murphy said.
So far, the program has helped more than 20 people enter treatment, he added.
“Those are people that probably wouldn’t be alive today,” he said.
Additional task force activities include the creation of a countywide map of harm reduction and treatment resources and an increase in community engagement, Murphy added.
In addition, Wisconsin will receive more than $17 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to treatment and collect more data on drug overdoses.
Milwaukee also recently joined a federal lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies, stating that dozens have “engaged in false and misleading practices that have resulted in the extraordinary increase in opioid addiction and overdose deaths in the City of Milwaukee and throughout the country.”
As for Jaskulski’s organization, it is working to address the issue by educating people to help reduce stigma and make it easier for them to reach out for help; conducting Naloxone training; hosting family support groups; and offering a resource website and call/text line for those seeking services. Ultimately, though, said Jaskulski, the best way to help someone with an addiction is to meet them where they’re at.
“When someone is in the midst of detoxing, they aren’t going to want to hear about long-term treatment options, but they might be willing to learn about medications that can help,” she said.
Where you can get help
Here is a partial list of drug treatment services in the Milwaukee area:
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