The Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) has issued a public health advisory to inform Wisconsinites about the increased number of deaths caused by drugs laced with synthetic substances, especially fentanyl.
Fentanyl is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Because it is strong and cheap to produce, people who manufacture illegal drugs use fentanyl to make other drugs more powerful and less expensive to make. Fentanyl can be added to pills, heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs.
DHS data shows that just last year, synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, were identified in 91 percent of opioid overdose deaths in Wisconsin, and in 73 percent of all overdose deaths. From 2019 to 2021, the number of fentanyl overdose deaths in the state grew by 97 percent.
“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 DHS Secretary-designee Karen Timberlake. “This is a public health crisis, and it’s necessary to sound the alarm to prevent unnecessary deaths.”
DHS supports a comprehensive set of strategies to support healthy communities, prevent death and reduce harm related to substance use. In March 2022, Governor Tony Evers decriminalized fentanyl test strips to test a substance for the presence of fentanyl.
“Fentanyl is very strong, and it doesn’t take a lot to cause an overdose. Plus, the amount of fentanyl in drugs is completely random, even in the same supply”, said Dr. Jasmine Zapata, Chief Medical Officer in the DHS Bureau of Community Health Promotion. “We encourage people who use substances to get fentanyl test strips and use them to know if the drug they intend to use is laced with the substance.”
Anyone who wants to get the test strips should contact the Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline.
While these strips are available around the state, a portion of the opioid settlement funds with drug manufacturers and distributors will be used to make the strips more widely available across Wisconsin.
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.
In the last decade, state and federal funding has been used across Wisconsin to create care and services to treat the whole person for their substance use disorder. Other efforts include encouraging parents and caregivers to have talks with their kids about the risks of substance use to prevent future harm; encouraging safer use practices to reduce the harmful effects of opioid use; expanding quality treatment for an opioid use disorder; and providing supports for people in recovery from an opioid use disorder through collaborations with tribal nations, state agencies, county agencies, and community-based service providers.
In January 2022, DHS held a series of online listening sessions to hear from Wisconsinites, partners, and stakeholders to get ideas on how to best use opioid settlement funds so that the actions meet the specific needs of communities. More than 800 Wisconsinites, partners, and stakeholders participated in the listening sessions or completed an online survey to share ideas.
In April 2022, Wisconsin was named the national leader in the annual Drug Take Back Day event, with nearly 60,000 pounds of unwanted medications being turned over for safe disposal. People who use opioids, whether as a prescribed medication or recreationally, are encouraged to have naloxone available to reverse an opioid overdose. Naloxone is available without a prescription at pharmacies around the state.