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Wisconsin opioid deaths hit another record high in 2021

More than 1,400 people died over opioid overdoses in the state last year

Opioid pills
Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

Wisconsin’s opioid overdose deaths rose again last year, eclipsing a previous record from 2020.

There were 1,427 opioid-related deaths in the state in 2021, officials with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services confirmed, a 16 percent increase over 2020 and a 70 percent increase over the number of deaths in 2018.

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The state’s spike in opioid deaths mirrors national trends. Wisconsin’s Director of Opioid Initiatives Paul Krupski believes social isolation, anxiety and stress from the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to the crisis.

“Many individuals struggled with healthy coping skills to deal with those problems that many had never had to deal with before,” Krupski said Friday. “And so unfortunately, those lack of healthy coping skills, in many cases, lead to individuals turning to substance use to cope.”

In 2020, Wisconsin recorded 1,227 opioid-related deaths, which was 311 more deaths than in 2019.

Krupski blames the growing prevalence of fentanyl, a powerful man-made opioid that’s sometimes subscribed as a painkiller, but is also found in illegal drugs like heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and counterfeit pills.

The vast majority — or nearly 1,300 — of Wisconsin’s opioid related-deaths in 2021 involved synthetic opioids, and in most cases that was fentanyl, Krupski said.

“Fentanyl is found throughout the entire drug supply,” he said. “It’s really unlike anything that we’ve ever, ever seen before.”

Earlier this year, Wisconsin’s Gov. Tony Evers signed legislation that decriminalized fentanyl test strips, which had previously been classified as drug paraphernalia. Wisconsin’s health department has distributed about 150,000 of the strips to providers across the state, Krupski said.

To be connected with resources for dealing with addiction, call 2-1-1 or visit 211wisconsin.communityos.org.