Milwaukee County on pace to set another record for drug overdose deaths in 2022

Medical examiner said he's expecting another 'sad record' this year

a fire medic holds a box containing naloxone hydrochloride
In this Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2019 photo, a fire medic holds a box containing naloxone hydrochloride which is carried in all their department’s emergency response vehicles, in Akron, Ohio. Keith Srakocic/AP Photos

Milwaukee County is on pace to set another record for drug overdose deaths for the third year in a row.

Most of the deaths being seen across Milwaukee and the state involve the powerful drug fentanyl, which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine. Community members say awareness about the prevalence of fentanyl in more street drugs is key to reducing overdoses.

Community activist Ara Sparkman brought her family to a listening session on Milwaukee’s north side Friday. She said her daughter has overdosed two times already.

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“She is one of the people that has overdosed and has survived. We don’t know if the next time will be the same result, but we want to make sure that there isn’t a next time,” Sparkman said.

Sparkman wants to see more messaging about the issue, so people are aware of resources available for those who suffer from substance use disorders. She believes about 1 in 5 people she knows in Milwaukee are using some kind of controlled substance — from opioids to marijuana.

“The misuse is widespread,” she said.

“They use it because of some kind of other post-traumatic relief and trying to escape reality, not wanting to deal with what they’re going through, so it’s very prominent,” she added. “It’s out there. It’s everywhere.”

There were 644 drug overdose deaths in Milwaukee County last year. Around 80 percent of the drug deaths logged involved fentanyl, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.

So far this year, 337 drug overdose deaths have been recorded. However, there are still many more autopsies that have pending toxicology reports, according to Dr. Brian Peterson, Milwaukee County’s chief medical examiner. Peterson said he expects there to be “another sad record” in 2022.

In 2020, the last full year of data available from the state, 1,277 Wisconsinites died from a drug overdose death. Twenty years ago, that figure was just 111.

Wisconsin has been dealing with an opioid epidemic for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social isolation played a role in exacerbating the opioid crisis. A 2021 Wisconsin Department of Health Services report pointed to the increase in stress and isolation being seen from the pandemic as possible reasons for the increase across the state.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services also issued a public health advisory about fentanyl last week.

According to provisional data from the state, the number of fentanyl overdose deaths grew by 97 percent from 2019 to 2021. In the last year, synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, were identified in 73 percent of all drug overdose deaths. The substance was found in 91 percent of all opioid overdose deaths.

Waukesha County went so far as to label the proliferation of the drug a “community health crisis.”

DHS announced on Aug. 1 it had received more than $6 million from the National Prescription Opiate Litigation settlement funds. The department plans to spend much of that money on Narcan and on fentanyl testing strips, which can be used to identify the presence of fentanyl in unregulated drugs.