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Milwaukee County toxicology lab adjusts to meet demand of historic drug-related death numbers

Overdose Deaths
Posted at 4:20 PM, May 31, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-31 22:18:33-04

MILWAUKEE — Drug-related deaths in Milwaukee County may set a new record this year as the medical examiner's office reports 11 deaths over Memorial Day weekend.

Six of the 11 deaths occurred within 24 hours.

Milwaukee County hit new records for the last three consecutive years. Sara Schreiber, forensic technical director of the toxicology lab at the medical examiner's office, believes it will happen again in 2022.

"It all really boils down to potent opioids, whether they be synthetic or natural. However they're consumed, the baseline finding in these cases is an opioid. So, it was heroin for a while, now it's fentanyl," Schreiber said.

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"We certainly hope these trends don't continue and we don't see this volume of drug-related suspected causes of death continue, because that would really put a hit on our caseload here," Schreiber said.

The lab processes samples from homicides, suicides, and motor vehicle deaths as well.

RELATED COVERAGE: 3 homicides, 2 fatal crashes in Milwaukee during Memorial Day weekend

The team in the lab includes five people. They made changes in recent years to keep up including switching their screening platform in 2019 to cover equipment that screens more than 800 compounds, a much wider range than their previous tools.

A lab technician was added to cover daily work and help alleviate the burden on analysts.

"We're able to do more cases in a more timely fashion and that's really what we're trying to serve. We're doing these death investigations to provide closure to the surviving family members. It's our due diligence to give the right answer," Schreiber said.

The lab is just one part of getting to that answer.

Schreiber said more equipment and personnel will certainly help with an ever-growing caseload.

However, the biggest challenge relating to toxicology is keeping up with quick-moving trends.

"There’s always a toll when it comes to what’s going on with this caseload, because every one of these cases that we're investigating, that's somebody’s life that we're investigating. We never lose sight of that," Schreiber said.

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