Isiah Holmes

Tracking Opioid Deaths by ZIP Code

The crisis is widespread buts hits hardest in 53206 and 53215 ZIP codes.

By , Wisconsin Examiner - Mar 1st, 2018 03:41 pm

Pills by Tom Varco (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Pills by Tom Varco (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons.

Milwaukee hasn’t been spared from morbid headlines spawned by the opioid crisis. Over 400 people died last year, mostly due to dangerous drugs like heroin and fentanyl. But the growing epidemic’s body count might sometimes be difficult to contextualize for the public. That’s why Urban Milwaukee conducted it’s own analysis, organizing Milwaukee’s 2017 overdose deaths by ZIP code.

The analysis used a spreadsheet of every Milwaukee County drug-related fatality from January-November 2017. The Medical Examiner’s document contained detailed information on the dead including home addresses and which drugs killed them. It also provided details on both where the person initially overdosed, and where they died.

All but 10 of the 42 Milwaukee County ZIP codes we analyzed from January-November reported drug-related deaths. As Dr. Brooke Lerner of the Milwaukee County Overdose Prevention Effort (COPE) tells Urban Milwaukee, “No community can ignore this, it’s touching everybody.” She also warned against assumptions that the victims are coming from outside the city.

Lerner noted Milwaukee’s overdose crisis is “intensifying rather than spreading,” meaning not that overdoses are increasing their range, but that more are dying. And usually not in a hospital. In both COPE’s studies since 2012 and Urban Milwaukee’s look at 2017, most victims died in or nearby their homes.

Even when excluding those deaths which occurred at a hospital (which are not necessarily residents of that ZIP code), 53215 was the hardest hit. Most of the L-shaped ZIP code is between 6th and 43rd streets and between Morgan and Beecher, but a chunk of it runs between Beecher and the Menomonee Valley west of 27th St. It recorded 50 deaths, with an unusually high portion — 25 deaths or half — happening in hospitals. Still more people initially overdosed in that zip code than any other. Deaths spread across the area, with pockets in the Lincoln Village neighborhood between S. 18th and S. 10th streets between Lincoln and Arther avenues.

The second-hardest hit ZIP code, 53206, is located between North and Capitol and between 7th and 27th. This is an area that has long led the misery index for the city, with high poverty, crime and other problems. A tight cluster of fentanyl and heroin deaths appeared in the Park West area on the western edge of 53206, an area where half the population lives below the poverty line. The total of 19 overdose deaths in 53206 is much lower than in 53215, but the population for 53206 — of 28,210 — is just one-third of the population — 62,248 — in 53215, so the north side ZIP code is actually harder hit on per capita basis.

Fentanyl and cocaine ravaged the 53206 area whereas River West and the East Side had a mix of substances, with a prevalence of heroin. In the black market, fenanyl is often cut with heroin, trading safety for potency. “The mixing of fentanyl”, says Dr. Lerner, “is, I think, related to the increase we’re seeing in the number of deaths.”

In past years analyzed by COPE and our analysis of 2017, the vast majority of overdose victims died with a combination of drugs in their systems. Dr. Lerner noted the percent of fentanyl deaths had once ranged around 11-13 percent of deaths, but “that goes to 33 percent in 2016 and once the finial 2017 is done, it’ll be even higher.”

To the west of 53215 is West Allis (53214), and the 53219 area zip code. Both had tight clusters of overdoses, particularly between s 66th street and S. 55th street where west Beloit Rd. crosses Burnham St.

Not far from 53206, Riverwest had 12 deaths, but they occurred over a smaller area. A cluster of four deaths, all heroin, also congregated around the Shorewood area. More victims who overdosed in Riverwest and the East Side, however, made it to a hospital before dying.

Blue columns represent reported overdoses, orange columns represent where those same individuals died. (This Graph Includes Hospital Deaths)

Blue columns represent reported overdoses, orange columns represent where those same individuals died. (This Graph Includes Hospital Deaths)

Cudahy had its own isolated overdose cluster of at least five deaths. Although not as many as some of the other high population zip codes, all occurred within a tightly-packed residential area not too far from Cudahy’s only high school. Another pocket in the 53217 zip code of South Milwaukee saw seven deaths near 18th and Monroe Ave.

Dr. Lerner and COPE looked at similar clusters in years past, finding an average range of 0-13 deaths in a given area. Some outliers existed, with pockets of overdose spikes like those Urban Milwaukee found.

For instance, the 53209 area ZIP code has a pocket of heroin and fentanyl deaths from N 65th to N 61st between Silver Spring and Florist Ave. Others were spread out across that ZIP code, almost exclusively occurring in a residence rather than a hospital.

Some deaths are prevented by anti-overdose drugs like Narcan, which is both carried by police and emergency personnel, and distributed to the addict community. “It’s a hard population to identify and connect to,” Lerner notes, but one increasingly coming into the light. She estimates that there is a ratio of one death for four overdoses, which shows the full scale of the addiction crisis. “The deaths you see are a really small part of the larger underlining problems in the community.”

Other less impacted, but still notable zip codes included 53210 with 15 deaths, 53219 with 15 deaths, 53208 with 12 deaths, and 53211 with 11 deaths. If you add the dead in Wauwatosa-area zip codes and eliminate the hospital deaths, the suburb had about 19 deaths.

The county’s overdose deaths mostly involved heroin, fentanyl, or cocaine, but also included various prescription pills. As an aside, not a single death was attributed to THC or organic cannabis despite numerous county initiatives geared specifically towards cannabis. While the Medical Examiner’s data cataloged every known drug-related death, heroin and opioids were the biggest killers. In all, 237 of the 344 deaths were ruled as mixed-drug intoxication.

Lerner notes programs which help address a person’s underlining reasons for using drugs; peer support, therapy, and rehabilitation are vital components. One example piloted in other states is the Angel Program. It allows users to surrender themselves to rehabilitation through a local police department without arrest or charge. The person is then placed with an “Angel” volunteer to guide them through recovery.

Social stigma about drug use “is something we need to face head one and begin to talk about it from the perspective of prevention and being comfortable with it,” Lerner emphasizes. Fentanyl in Milwaukee is making deaths more common, and unpredictable.

Lerner sees a lot of work being done to take on the overdose crisis in Milwaukee. But it’s a big problem to confront. Beyond subtle differences between zip codes or even one block to another, the whole of this Great Lakes city is awash in overdoses, pouring across long roads like National Avenue, Beloit, Appleton, North Avenue and Burleigh.

Update March 6: The story inadvertently left out the numbers for the 53204 ZIP code, which had 28 drug overdose deaths in 2017, including 21 deaths in or near homes in that zip code.

Categories: Health, Opioid Crisis

4 thoughts on “Tracking Opioid Deaths by ZIP Code”

  1. Terry says:

    Tragic and totally unacceptable. All while Wisconsin Republicans and Scott Walker completely ignore the problem and verifiable, proven remedies to reduce such needless deaths and suffering. States that have medical cannabis programs have reduced opioid related deaths by 25%. States like Wisconsin which have no such program because of Republican obstruction and obfuscation, have only seen the opioid crisis intensify.

    Like thousands of others across the state I lost a very close friend in Wisconsin to an opioid OD. He was in chronic pain. It didn’t need to happen.
    We the People are looking right at YOU Republicans. Right at YOU Scott Walker.

    Dump Walker 2018
    Dump ALL Republicans 2018
    Legalize Cannabis!!

  2. COLIN says:

    Wouldn’t a heat map be more helpful to show this info?

  3. Jenni says:

    I am curious why 53204 was not included. Overdoses may be higher there that in 53215

  4. Alicia Fugate says:

    Where can I find the raw data that you used to create the bar chart with?

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