Milwaukee County On Pace For Record Number Of Fatal Drug Overdoses

Medical Examiner's Office: There Could Be 640 Overdoes Deaths In 2020

Used heroin needles
Mel Evans/AP Photo

The number of deaths caused by drug overdoses continues to rise in Milwaukee County — and the county is on pace to have a record 640 fatal overdoses in 2020.

From January to March, there were 160 suspected fatal overdoses in the county, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, and additional cases and testing are pending.

If the number of overdose deaths continue to increase, Milwaukee County could surpass the previous record set last year, according to the medical examiner’s office.

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In February, the office reported 407 fatal drug overdoses in 2019.

Sara Schreiber, forensic technical director for the Medical Examiner’s Office, said the increases can vary month to month.

“We have seen different increases other years,” Schreiber explained. “It’s a little concerning because we’ve kind of come out to a pretty fast start in 2020.”

Officials aren’t able to pinpoint the exact causes behind the increase, but it could be linked to new substances and a lack of support for those who struggle with addiction due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The office previously reported fentanyl was the drug associated the most with fatal overdoses, but Schreiber said they are seeing an increase in new drug substances that are causing more deaths.

“We’ve identified a couple new substances in the last couple months that were not being identified last year,” Schreiber said.

One of those substances has a similar potency to fentanyl. Combining substances together with fentanyl, cocaine or heroin can increase potency and lead to death, Schreiber said.

Although it can be difficult to predict exact numbers, officials at the Medical Examiner’s Office use date from previous years and keep up with current data to create predictions.

Schreiber said the office is focused on the COVID-19 pandemic and there are concerns on how the pandemic will impact those struggling with addiction.

“It’s kind of the perfect storm,” Schreiber said, explaining people have a lot of stressors right now like losing jobs, changes in school, and staying home. “Perhaps you are struggling with an addiction and were pretty solid on a recover path. These kinds of things are things that can easily trip folks up and pull them back,” she said.

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