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Fentanyl driving Wisconsin's record opioid overdose deaths, official says

Wisconsin had 1,387 opioid overdose deaths last year, according to a preliminary total as of June 13.

Confiscated powder containing fentanyl.
A Drug Enforcement Administration chemist checks confiscated powder containing fentanyl.
DON EMMERT/GETTY IMAGES/TNS
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MADISON — Soaring opioid overdose deaths in Wisconsin are increasingly fueled by fentanyl, a state official said June 14, and curbing use of the dangerous drug is a key goal as the state prepares to receive the first payment of at least $420 million in expected opioid settlement funds.

Fentanyl "is where we need to really focus a lot of our efforts specifically," Paul Krupski, opioid initiatives director for the state Department of Health Services, said at a Wisconsin Health News event.

Speakers also stressed the importance of educating students about the risks of counterfeit pills and the danger of even small amounts of fentanyl found in other drugs, including heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, marijuana and other types of opioid pills.

"I'm not sure we can start too young," said Mark O'Connell, CEO of the Wisconsin Counties Association, which is helping local governments allocate 70% of the settlement funds, with 30% going to the state health department. An initial payment is expected by this fall.

"We will partner with our educational facilities to try to increase awareness and education so we don't have the problem and play catch up when someone needs (the overdose reversal drug) Narcan or we're arranging a funeral," O'Connell said.

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Wisconsin had 1,387 opioid overdose deaths last year, according to a preliminary total as of June 13. That likely will increase before the tally is finalized in September, health department spokesperson Jennifer Miller said. That's up from the previous record of 1,227 deaths in 2020, which was 32% more than any previous year.

Dane County had a preliminary total of 133 opioid fatalities last year, up from its previous record of 123 in 2020.

The increasing prevalence of fentanyl and stress from the COVID-19 pandemic have largely driven the surge, as seen nationwide, Krupski said.

Doctors are prescribing addiction treatment medications such as buprenorphine, or Suboxone, but have little control over social challenges patients face at home, said Dr. Ritu Bhatnagar, co-medical director of NewStart, UnityPoint Health-Meriter's addiction treatment program in Madison.

"It's what happens when that person takes the medicine and goes back to their community," she said. "When people are in recovery, that is really hard work. ... I'm asking them to change everything about their lives."

Krupski said some settlement funds might be used to support housing, transportation, child care and other solutions to "root causes" of substance abuse. A state plan in April also called for beefing up substance abuse education in schools, improving overdose activity alerts to warn the public of increased risk and making Narcan, or naloxone, more widely available. The state also plans to boost distribution of newly legalized fentanyl test strips to help users identify the deadly opioid in other drugs.

Rep. Jesse James, R-Altoona, chair of the Assembly Committee on Substance Abuse and Prevention, sponsored the fentanyl test strip bill. He called for a "Good Samaritan" law, which would provide limited immunity to people who call 911 for overdoses and those who overdose. A 2014 state law covering 911 callers expired, by design, in 2020. A 2019 bill to extend it didn't pass.

Without such a law, people on probation or parole who use substances are scared to help others, James said.

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"They're not taking necessary actions because they're afraid of getting in trouble," he said.

© 2022 The Wisconsin State Journal

Visit The Wisconsin State Journal at www.wisconsinstatejournal.com .

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