Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service

County Had Record Overdose Deaths in 2019

404 overdose deaths last year; previous high was 401 in 2017.

By , Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service - Feb 12th, 2020 12:40 pm
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A discarded needle lies in an alley near West Greenfield Avenue. Photo by Edgar Mendez/NNS.

A discarded needle lies in an alley near West Greenfield Avenue. Photo by Edgar Mendez/NNS.

A record high of 404 drug overdose deaths occurred in Milwaukee County last year, surpassing the previous high of 401 in 2017, according to data from the Milwaukee County medical examiner’s office.

The grim tally is sure to go up, as 17 more probable overdose cases are pending further toxicology reports, said Karen Domagalski, operations manager at the office. There were 384 drug overdose deaths in 2018.

“It’s disheartening to know that so many people are losing their lives,” said Ald. Michael Murphy, chairman of the City-County Heroin, Opioid, and Cocaine Task Force. “The goal is obviously to get more and more people into treatment.”

The increase in deaths surprised and saddened Michelle Jaskulski, senior director of faith and family programs for the Washington, D.C.-based Addiction Policy Forum. Jaskulski, who lives in Cudahy, became involved in the movement after experiencing her two sons struggle with addiction. She said a combination of factors could be contributing to the increase, including easy access to drugs in the area.   

“But there’s also a lack of accessible resources, especially detox services for those who are addicted,” she said.

By the numbers

Of the 404 drug overdose deaths that occurred in 2019, the majority (236) involved fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can kill in trace amounts and is often used as a cutting agent for heroin, cocaine and other drugs. Of the deaths, 128 were heroin related; 174 were caused by cocaine alone or in combination; and 17 involved methamphetamines. The number of heroin-related deaths has decreased for two consecutive years, while cocaine-related deaths increased in each of the past two years.

Murphy said people should pay close attention to the rise in cocaine-related deaths, which could be related to people shying away from heroin.

“I’m hearing anecdotally that people are moving away from heroin to cocaine because of the huge number of deaths, but what they don’t realize is that it’s probably drug dealers that are mixing it with fentanyl,” said Murphy regarding the increase.

Of the overdose victims, 274 were men and 130 were women. The youngest victim was just 15 months old, while the oldest was 88.

The South Side of Milwaukee continues to be the city’s drug overdose hotspot, with 38 deaths occurring in the 53204 ZIP code, and 46 recorded in the adjoining 53215. Other ZIP code areas in Milwaukee that have been hit hard by drug overdose deaths include 53210 (23) and 53208 (21), although a total of 17 ZIP code areas recorded at least 10 overdose deaths.

The medical examiner’s data goes back to 2002, when 109 deaths occurred. Data from the medical examiner’s office suggests that the trend has continued or could even be accelerating into 2020. While only three drug overdose deaths have been confirmed in 2020, another 49 probable overdose cases are pending. If all are confirmed, the total of 52 would surpass the 45 overdose deaths that occurred through Feb. 10, 2019.

Efforts to address the epidemic

Some help to address the epidemic in Milwaukee is on the way. The City of Milwaukee Health Department was recently awarded a $730,000 grant from the National Association of City County Health Officials to expand the Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative, a pilot program launched on the South Side. The program, a collaboration between the health department, Milwaukee Fire Department and other community partners, involves having peer counselors ride with paramedics six days a week to talk to people who overdosed, but were resuscitated, Murphy said.

So far, the program has helped more than 20 people enter treatment, he added.

“Those are people that probably wouldn’t be alive today,” he said.

Additional task force activities include the creation of a countywide map of harm reduction and treatment resources and an increase in community engagement, Murphy added.

In addition, Wisconsin will receive more than $17 million from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to expand access to treatment and collect more data on drug overdoses.

Milwaukee also recently joined a federal lawsuit against pharmaceutical manufacturers, distributors and pharmacies, stating that dozens have “engaged in false and misleading practices that have resulted in the extraordinary increase in opioid addiction and overdose deaths in the City of Milwaukee and throughout the country.”

As for Jaskulski’s organization, it is working to address the issue by educating people to help reduce stigma and make it easier for them to reach out for help; conducting Naloxone training; hosting family support groups; and offering a resource website and call/text line for those seeking services. Ultimately, though, said Jaskulski, the best way to help someone with an addiction is to meet them where they’re at.

“When someone is in the midst of detoxing, they aren’t going to want to hear about long-term treatment options, but they might be willing to learn about medications that can help,” she said.

Where you can get help

Here is a partial list of drug treatment services in the Milwaukee area:

This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee.

One thought on “County Had Record Overdose Deaths in 2019”

  1. Paul Mozina says:

    The Journal Sentinel reported that 17 of the 2019 overdose deaths were intentional— the other 390 were “accidents”.

    No, it is not an “accident” that the War on Drugs has had the readily predictable outcome of creating a marketplace where super potent and highly profitable opioids like fentanyl are used to adulterate substances that are then bought and sold by people who have no idea regarding the purity and dosage of what they are transacting.

    It is the arbitrary criminalization of “controlled substances” that results in these “accidents”. If the 390 people who died “accidentally” could have simply purchased what they needed and wanted from a regulated source of known purity and dosage — they would still be alive. They were “suicided” by the War on Drugs, which is at root a denial of every Human Being’s fundamental Natural Right to be the master of their own body.

    I encourage readers to listen to the sobering words of Dr. Brian Peterson, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner as he reported the 2019 drug overdose deaths to the Milwaukee County Intergovernmental Cooperation Council at their meeting on Monday February 10, 2020. https://youtu.be/U-6A3g5vetw

    Here is an image of the 2019 spreadsheet he passed out: https://1drv.ms/u/s!AoGhDn8qu6nxlHxtL7yY5JyjKDJY?e=jdtYFB

    Referring to the 2019 overdose data he published he explains:

    “We actually had the highest number of overdoses ever in Milwaukee County last year. I don’t see any end in sight to that.”

    Unfortunately, he repeats the commonly embraced personification of drugs, implying they are capable of acting with volition rather than acknowledging that they are inanimate substances subject to the laws of supply and demand. He warns of the danger if methamphetamine ever gets a foothold here, again, as if it were an invading army under the direction of some cruel general.

    He speaks of the collateral outcomes of the “drug trade” in terms of Homicides and the spread of Hepatitis C and HIV/AIDS. But how many homicides would result if consumers could simply purchase what they wanted from a regulated source of known purity and dosage? How many opiate/opioid users would inject the substance if a regulated source of known purity and dosage were available in an ingestible form?

    Dr. Peterson goes on to say: “Fentanyl is so cheap you could lace just about anything with it really.”

    Fentanyl is so potent that now it takes several doses of NARCAN, or putting the unwitting person on a drip of the antidote in the hospital, to keep them breathing.

    “We see about a dozen analogues, variations on fentanyl, in Milwaukee County. I expect to see more.”, he says.

    Yes, the synthetic opioid genie is out of the bottle. Read “Fentanyl Inc.”, by Ben Westhoff, to get an idea of the futility of preventing the derivation and distribution of endless varieties of synthetic opioids.

    This reminds me of the words of then Lieutenant Shaun Doyne, MPD Narcotics Division — HIDTA, spoken at the December 1, 2017 City-County Heroin, Opioid and Cocaine Task Force Meeting: “I Feel the fentanyl issue is truly driving the epidemic we have right now and the stats definitely prove that. If you look at it, if you go through year to year, it’s doubled, quadrupled, and I hate to say it, but if we could get back to the heroin status it would be success. But really that’s kind of where it’s at really when we’re talking about fentanyl.”

    Ah yes, if we could just get back to “the good old days” when it was just heroin.

    The prohibition of “controlled substances” does not release them from the laws of supply and demand. The pressure put on the supply of opiates by the War on Drugs has led directly to the emergence of more powerful, more profitable “hardened” synthetic opioids, which, truth be told, can be manufactured anywhere and for which law enforcement is utterly incapable of preventing the distribution of.

    Back to Dr. Peterson’s comments…

    Regarding his predictions on the total number of drug deaths — the green bar on the graph:

    “I think the number of deaths will absolutely continue to increase.”

    When asked about solutions, he had this to say:

    “Sadly, when it comes to solutions, I’m not the guy. I kind of follow along at the end of the parade cleaning up (much laughter). I wish I could tell you. There are right now — the current best practice I think — is the medical assisted withdrawal ok. There are drugs to assist with that. There are VIVITROL and that kind of injection. That stuffs inordinately expensive and it works in a small percentage. The problem is we’re talking great big numbers. So, you may be able to rescue a few. I know there was an in-patient methamphetamine treatment facility in the Bay Area when I was back in California, they said you had to be inpatient 365, 24/7 for 5 years and they could probably rescue you. Well, that’s expensive so then it comes down to a matter of dollars and cents”.

    In conclusion, I disagree with Alderman Michael Murphy who says: “The goal is obviously to get more and more people into treatment.” This approach is fueling the rapid growth of a for-profit, medical, mental health, pharmaceutical, industrial complex — funded by Medicaid no less. I think the goal should be to restore to every human being their Natural, Inherent, Immutable and Inalienable Right to self-medicate — to be the masters of their own bodies. I support a regulated market where all substances are available with known purity and dosage. I support a new model of teaching our young people that they are the masters of their bodies and 100% responsible for whatever they consume and any actions they take forthwith. I support the wide dissemination of accurate and timely information about all existing substances and new ones as they emerge. I support the elimination of all criminal penalties for the inoffensive manufacture, distribution, possession and consumption of any substance, the expungement of criminal records and the release from incarceration of all those convicted for non-violent “drug crimes”. And lastly, I support helping people who voluntarily want to stop consuming any substance.

    If you support the proposition that the government somehow acquired the “legitimate” right to control what you or I put in our bodies — a right that none of us has and none of us can delegate — than you support human slavery. You are saying that no matter who you are, regardless of your age, sex, race, religion, experience, education, profession, public service, personal rectitude — even in the privacy of your own home — you are subject to the arbitrary whims and violent imposition of force that is the modus operandi of your government masters when it comes to prosecuting their War on Drugs.

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