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Opioid Crisis: Milwaukee County's New Rapid Response Program Draws Eyes Across US

Marti Mikkelson
Keri Rummel (left) and Amy Molinski come to the aid of overdose victims as part of the Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative.

Milwaukee County continues to fight an opioid crisis. Overdose deaths peaked in 2017, according to the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner. But fatalities could be trending down — as the number recorded last year dropped more than 10%, to 302. In the hope that the numbers continue to decline, the Milwaukee Fire Department recently rolled out a unique approach to stemming the opioid crisis.

At 8:30 on a recent morning, a team of four people — two firefighters and two health care workers — were arriving for work at Fire Station 31 on Milwaukee's south side. The team is part of the Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative, which began in June. Fire Captain Michael Wright oversees the program and greets the team members. He says they’re on their way “upstairs” to grab the latest report from overnight. The tally will show them how many people may have overdosed on heroin or opioids.

"They put together what basically is a list of whom and where. And they tabulate that with other EMS data and then go find the locations — whether it's at home or under a bridge or at the hospital — to try to find these patients and give them some assistance," Wright says.

READ: For One Rural Community, Fighting Addiction Started With Recruiting The Right Doctor

When team members arrive at the patients' locations, Wright says they connect them with whatever resources they need to stabilize them. Sometimes that means Narcan to resuscitate them or test strips to see if the opioids they ingested are laced with fentanyl. Then, Wright says the team assesses the patients' willingness to get treatment. If they are ready, the team calls for a ride. 

"We've formed a partnership with Lyft where we have a special call where we can have one of the Lyft drivers come. We put the patient, peer support specialist, and one of our community paramedics in the car with the patient and we go straight to one of the area facilities," Wright says.

He says Milwaukee is the first location in the country to try this "rapid response" approach, and many eyes are watching to see if it will succeed. Wright says it started as a citywide program, but it has since expanded to the county.

Wright believes the program has helped saved lives in the months since it began and says the team has transported many patients to clinics for treatment. While Wright wouldn't elaborate on how many, team member Amy Molinski says she uses a simple formula to measure success.

"Every single person who opens the door and is willing to talk to us is a success," Molinski says.

"Every single person who opens the door and is willing to talk to us is a success." - Amy Molinski

After our talk, Molinski and the other team members packed up their supplies — a medic bag, an electrocardiogram monitor, maps, and laptops. Then they jump into a car that reads “Community Paramedics” on the back, and they head out. The team was making a handful of stops across Milwaukee County, visiting people who’ve overdosed recently. I wasn’t allowed to go on the trip because of liability concerns.

They were gone for a few hours, and I caught up with Molinski again after they returned. She says they could only reach two of the five people they set out to visit. One had overdosed the day before, and she says it took a while for him to open up.

"He's got a lot of denial, but he was willing to keep talking to us and keep meeting with us. He's demonstrating to us that he knows that he needs help. He's just not comfortable saying it," Molinski says.

Molinski says she's encouraged that the man was open to follow-up visits, in the hope he'll eventually seek treatment.

The city currently funds Milwaukee Overdose Response Initiative. It operates four hours a day, five days a week. Captain Michael Wright says next week, the city will announce a federal grant to expand the initiative, to the tune of nearly $750,000. He says then the goal is to expand the program to eight hours a day, six days a week.

Marti was a reporter with WUWM from 1999 to 2021.
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