MILWAUKEE COUNTY — The third leading cause of death in Milwaukee County after COVID-19 is drug overdoses, according to county records. It is a problem that the pandemic has only made worse.
"Two people in particular just left the program and started using and they both died. You know it's just a tragic thing,” said Marty Calderon of God Touch MKE.
Calderone runs God Touch MKE. It is a recovery home for men dealing with addiction. Calderone also goes into the community with volunteers to meet addicts where they hand out food and offer prayers for those who need help.
"I primarily do my work on the south side in Milwaukee, but you know the heroin is all over. It's in the suburbs, it's in the city,” said Calderone.
In Milwaukee County, the Medical Examiner’s Office says in three days, between Friday and Monday, it was investigating 10 possible overdose deaths.
"This is a regular occurrence. I would love to say that 10 is shockingly outrageous. Truthfully, we have seen more than that in a weekend. We have seen six calls in 30 minutes,” said Sara Schreiber, the technical forensic director of the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.
Overall, overdose deaths are on the rise, up 79 percent in just two years, according to public data from the office.
Overdose deaths in Milwaukee County:
- 2020: 545
- 2019: 418
- 2018: 305
According to the ME’s office, drug-related deaths were the third-highest cause of death in 2020. Only COVID-19 and natural causes led to more deaths. And it was higher than homicides, suicides and motor vehicles deaths combined.
2020 Milwaukee County death numbers:
- 6507: Natural (Non-COVID-19) deaths
- 887: COVID-19-related Deaths
- 545: Drug-related deaths
- 219: Homicides
- 126: Suicides
- 107: Motor Vehicle Deaths
“The two were simultaneously happening. We were having an increase in drug deaths and we were dealing with the pandemic,” said Schreiber.
Calderone says he saw many people go back to drugs during the pandemic after being in recovery.
"It's been hard on some people who have, you know, stayed clean for a while and suddenly lost their job. If they don't have a structured plan, they're going to fall back to what they used to do: that's either using drugs or drinking,” said Calderone.
The ME’s office says part of the problem is in the drugs people are using. They are seeing a rise in drugs mixed with fentanyl.
“The very vast majority of our drug-related deaths is opioids, primarily is fentanyl. That fentanyl is not usually used alone. It is used in combination with other things,” said Schreiber.
Calderone says people often think they are using straight heroin and it actually is cut with fentanyl, which is leading to overdose deaths. It is why Calderone is doubling down on his efforts. He will be back on the streets Friday, talking to addicts about resources, helping them in any way he can, because he has been in their shoes.
“You know, there is a way out,” said Calderone.
If you need help with addiction, you can call the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration to be connected to resources. The number is 1-800-662-HELP (1-800-662-4357).