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State health officials warn residents about an increase in overdose deaths from fentanyl-laced drugs

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids were detected in 73 percent of all overdose deaths in the last year

Fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills
This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah and introduced as evidence at a trial shows fentanyl-laced fake oxycodone pills collected during an investigation. U.S. Attorneys Office for Utah/AP Photo

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services is warning residents about an increase in the number of overdose deaths caused by drugs laced with fentanyl and other substances.

The agency issued a public health advisory on Wednesday in response to the continued uptick in deaths.

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.

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Dr. Jasmine Zapata, chief medical officer of DHS’s Bureau of Community Health Promotion, said each of these statistics represents a life lost.

“It’s easy to get numb at times to the numbers and statistics. But again, these are real families, real lives that are impacted,” she said.

Zapata said part of the urgency around the public health advisory comes from an uptick in deaths high school and middle school students who don’t have a history of drug use, people not traditionally thought of as being at risk of overdose.

“We’ve seen an uptick in people thinking they’re taking a single oxycodone pill or adderall pill, a single pill that includes fentanyl, which causes them to die within hours,” Zapata said. “There are many accidental deaths happening and really some would consider fentanyl poisonings.”

Zapata warned fentanyl is unlike other drugs in its potency, which is part of what makes it so deadly.

“A very, very tiny amount — even as little as two grains of salt — is enough to kill,” Zapata said. “Fentanyl is very hard to detect. So it can’t be smelled, tasted or even seen. And that makes it easy for it to be placed in other types of drugs without a user’s knowledge.”

She said that means individuals experiencing an overdose due to the substance may also need more than one dose of Narcan, a medication that can reverse an overdose.

Paul Krupski, DHS Director of Opioid Initiatives, said fentanyl is cheap and easily accessible for drug manufacturers and increases their profit margins by hooking drug users on a different kind of high. He said the substance’s lethality has been driving the increase in overdose deaths across the U.S. and it’s more present than ever before in the drug supply.

“It continues to get more and more potent and there are more types of synthetic opioids, more different types of fentanyl analogs than ever before that are leading to these overdoses and deaths,” Krupski said.

He said the state has particularly seen an uptick in deaths involving cocaine laced with fentanyl and in counterfeit pills. DHS estimated that as many as 40 percent of counterfeit pills contain a lethal amount of fentanyl.

Krupski said in March, the state Legislature decriminalized test strips that can detect fentanyl. They can be found at some pharmacies, syringe service providers and opioid treatment programs, he said.

“One thing the department is working on right now is actually developing a broader approach to provide fentanyl test strips statewide to all individuals, similar to how we do Narcan,” he said.