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Rising fentanyl overdoses, Wisconsin issues public health advisory

In 2021, synthetic opioids - mostly fentanyl - were identified in 91 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in Wisconsin.
Posted at 2:49 PM, Aug 17, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-18 10:02:31-04

MILWAUKEE — The Wisconsin Department of Health Services issued a public health advisory on Wednesday, warning of the rising risk of overdose deaths from drugs laced with the highly addictive synthetic opioid known as fentanyl.

In 2021, synthetic opioids - mostly fentanyl - were identified in 91 percent of opioid-related overdose deaths in Wisconsin and 73 percent of all overdose deaths, DHS data shows.

"This is a public health crisis that we need to raise more awareness about and we really want to curb it before it gets even worse," said DHS Dr. Jasmine Zapata.

The number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths rose by 97 percent from 2019 through 2021. Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine, two of the most notable opioids.

A public health advisory in Wisconsin is more of a public warning than a policy with funding or laws. "The health advisory includes action items for the public, partners, providers, and stakeholders to be aware of the risks of fentanyl, but also to share the information with their communities," according to a statement from DHS on Wednesday.

According to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiners, fentanyl-related deaths have increased by 170% in the last five years.

"A very, very tiny amount even as little as two grains of salt is enough to kill," said Dr. Zapata.


According to DHS, the drug is difficult to detect and is being found in all types of drugs, including stimulants.

"This means that you can think you're taking one substance, but really be taking a substance that is mixed with fentanyl, which can lead to death," said Dr. Zapata.

The DHS highlighted their support for fentanyl test strips, which are used to test a substance for fentanyl laced inside. Gov. Tony Evers approved the decriminalizing of fentanyl test strips in March. Now anyone who wants to get the strips can do so by contacting the Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline.

DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake called it a "public health crisis."

“As we continue our work to promote mental health, reduce harm, and increase support for those struggling with substance use disorders, we can't ignore the greater risks people face by not knowing what is included in the drugs they are taking,” said Timberlake.

Milwaukee Overdose Prevention is working to do all that it can to prevent overdose deaths by handing out free Narcan, which can reverse the effects of a fentanyl overdose.

"Everybody should have a Narcan. It's not just the people who use it or their friends or family, although that is also very important. It can happen to anybody at any time so everybody should have it all the time," said Ryan Gorman, Co-founder of Milwaukee Overdose Prevention.

The group has distributed hundreds of Narcans and resources across the city and believes they can be used to enable people to change.

In Wisconsin, Narcan can be purchased without a prescription at a pharmacy and can be available free of cost for people who attend free training sessions offered by agencies participating in the NARCAN® Direct Program.

Read the DHS' statement on their website.

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