Milwaukee County is on pace to surpass its all-time high for drug overdose deaths for the fourth consecutive year. In 2021, visitors hung notes on a display at an International Overdose Awareness Day memorial event in downtown Milwaukee. (Edgar Mendez / Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service)
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Milwaukee County is on pace this year to surpass last year’s record-high total of 643 drug overdose deaths. 

The county confirmed 449 drug overdose deaths as of Nov. 6 and documented 124 additional probable cases, pending toxicology tests, according to data provided by the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office. Confirmation of all of those cases would put the total at 573 deaths, compared to 536 at that date in 2021.

This could mark the fourth consecutive year of record-high drug overdose deaths in Milwaukee County.

The trend adds urgency for Milwaukee County to best use the $70 million it expects to receive as its share of the state’s opioid settlement of more than $400 million. That $400 million is part of a $26 billion national legal settlement against opioid manufacturers that helped to fuel the opioid epidemic.

“It’s absolutely imperative they spend this money right,” said Rob Henken, president of the Wisconsin Policy Forum and lead researcher of a report commissioned by the county to help that happen. The Wisconsin Policy Forum is a nonpartisan, independent policy research organization.

That report, “Road to Recovery,” released this month examines ways to improve substance-use disorder services in Milwaukee County.

“A common sentiment is that current SUD (substance use disorder) services are delivered not as part of a coordinated system of care but as a fragmented and incomplete array of services by dozens of providers who operate largely in their own respective service lanes,” read a Wisconsin Policy Forum statement on the report, which discusses a coordination gap among local, county and private health systems.

One way to possibly address this, Henken said, is for the county to move toward a similar model as was used when it revamped its service-delivery system for mental health care. He said that involved a move away from providing direct crisis care to coordinating an array of services in the community.

“This is a golden opportunity to do something similar on the substance abuse side of things,” he added.

Amanda Rodriguez, community programs and integration manager in Milwaukee for Community Medical Services, a medication-assisted treatment center, said she thinks it would be good for the county to serve as a facilitator of services and also provide technical support to local organizations.

“I think it would help with communication and coordination and also help community folks access grants and other resources to provide more services,” she said.

‘We’re seeing sicker folks than we’ve ever seen before’

The report highlighted other challenges to the local substance-use treatment landscape, including a shortage of detox, residential and bridge services, which provide support for individuals who have transitioned out of more intense treatment but still need support.

“Our patients are in need of a higher level of care,” Rodriguez said. “We’re seeing sicker folks than we’ve ever seen before.”

Still, building more centers and adding beds will not solve the problem if no one is available to provide care, Henken said.

Rodriguez said most, if not all, local agencies are experiencing worker shortages.

 “Our counselor caseload ratio is 55 to 1, We’re admitting folks at such a rapid speed we can’t keep up,” she said.

The report suggests investments to help community service providers recruit and retain staff and to create intern stipends for nonprofits. Other recommendations to address service gaps include expanding services to treat alcohol addiction, increasing family services and using funds to support employment and transportation.

Hannah Lepper, prevention manager at the Community Advocates Public Policy Institute, said investing money in prevention and harm reduction at the front end helps lower the demand for crisis services later.

“Education and prevention helps reduce the risks of substance abuse for youth and adults and harm-reduction saves lives,” she said.

The Community Advocates Public Policy Institute operates the Milwaukee County Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition and administers the southeast Wisconsin region of Alliance for Wisconsin Youth, which supports substance-abuse prevention coalitions in several counties.

A closer look at this year’s data

Nearly half, 218 (49%), of this year’s confirmed drug overdose victims were white, while 168 (37%) were Black and 48 (11%) Hispanic. Other victims were Native American (6), Asian/Pacific Islanders (4), multi-race (4) or East Indian (1).

Seventy-one percent of victims were males, and 29 percent were females. Ages ranged from just 12 years old to 83.

Milwaukee’s South Side continues to be a drug overdose hotspot. The 53215 ZIP code area lost 32 residents to drug overdoses this year, while the adjoining 53204 lost 28. The 53218 neighborhood on the Northwest Side lost 28 residents, while 27 residents each from 53209 and 53206, both on the city’s North Side, lost their lives. 

Two more ZIP code areas have each lost more than 20 residents to drug overdoses this year: 53214 (25), which encompasses parts of Milwaukee and West Allis, and 53208 (23), on the Near West Side. Twelve victims lacked homes or had unknown residences.

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Edgar Mendez is a senior staff reporter for the Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service. He won a 2018 Regional Edward R. Murrow Award and 2014, 2017, and 2018 Milwaukee Press Club Awards for his reporting on taverns, marijuana law enforcement, and lead in water service lines.

In 2008, he won a Society of Professional Journalists’ regional award for columns dealing with issues such as poverty, homelessness and racism. His writing has been published by the Associated Press, Reuters, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and other media.