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In 3 days, 17 people died from overdoses in Milwaukee County

person at podium
Emily Files
Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski held a press conference along with police, government, and community leaders to raise alarm about the growing number of overdoses.

Milwaukee County saw a record number of opioid overdoses over the last few days. Seventeen people died in a 72-hour period, between Saturday and Monday. That’s one death every four hours.

Police, fire department and government leaders held a press conference Tuesday to ask for the public’s help preventing overdoses.

The contents of a HOPE kit are displayed at Miwaukee Fire Station 2. HOPE kits include Narcan and fentanyl test strips.
Emily Files
The contents of a HOPE kit are displayed at Miwaukee Fire Station 2. HOPE kits include Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

"When we look at these 17 deaths, they’re more concentrated in the city but certainly occurring in our suburbs as well," said Milwaukee County Office of Emergency Management Medical Director Dr. Ben Weston. "They’re somewhat older that typical — about 50 years old [on average.] And at least four of them are among our homeless population."

The medical examiner’s office hasn’t completed toxicology reports for all the deceased. But officials believe fentanyl-laced street drugs are the main culprit. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin that is often mixed into heroin, cocaine and meth.

"Eighty percent of our cases — of our drug-related deaths — have fentanyl in them," said Sara Schreiber, forensic technical director for the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner. "Eighty percent of individuals that die with cocaine present in their system also have fentanyl present."

Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski recommended testing any drug not obtained through a pharmacy for fentanyl. He said HOPE kits, which include fentanyl test strips and the overdose-halting medicine Narcan, are available at all Milwaukee fire stations.

Lipski said people who pick up HOPE kits won’t be questioned or judged. He called for the stigma around drug abuse to end.

"At its core, this is a mental health disease," Lipski said. "This is no different than if you have heart trouble, or diabetes, high blood pressure. This is no different than that. We’ve got to stop dumping on people because they are stuck in this cycle."

Milwaukee County is increasing its efforts to prevent overdoses with $11 million from a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies. The prevention includes vending machines in public places with free Narcan and fentanyl test strips.

Emily is an editor and project leader for WUWM.
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