Drug syringe and cooked heroin on spoon

By Shereen Siewert

After a significant drop in 2018 accidental overdose deaths in Marathon County doubled in 2019, according to newly released figures from the county’s medical examiner.

In Marathon County, 14 people died of accidental overdoses in 2019 compared to just seven in 2018. But the number is still lower than the 15 accidental overdose deaths reported in both 2016 and 2017, statistics show.

The report, which offers insight into accidental overdoses between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2019, also showed that men and working-aged adults experienced a higher burden of overdose deaths.

That trend is in line with Wisconsin Department of Health Services statistics.

The youngest Marathon County fatal overdose victim in 2019 was 18 years old. Just one had a current prescription for naltrexone, buprenophine or methadone.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine, is listed as an abused drug in more than half of the cases. The drug has been implicated in nearly 29,000 overdose deaths nationwide last year, most likely spread because of heroin and prescription pill shortages, and also because it was cheaper for drug wholesalers than heroin, according to a University of California at San Francisco report on illicit U.S. drug markets.

Sarah Mars, PhD, a researcher in the Department of Family and Community Medicine at UCSF, said Fentanyl is not only particularly deadly, but is made even more dangerous because users often don’t know they’re taking it.

“Fentanyl is rarely sold as fentanyl,” Mars said. “The dealers selling fentanyl directly to the users often don’t know what’s in it. Not only is this particularly dangerous, but it also means penalizing low level dealers isn’t going to make any difference in the fentanyl poisoning epidemic.”

For every drug overdose that results in death there are many more nonfatal overdoses, each one with its own emotional and economic toll. But police and health officials say the number of near-fatal overdoses are nearly impossible to track, making it difficult to identify the full scope of the problem.

Marathon County Sheriff’s Department Chief Deputy Chad Billeb said overdose calls to 911 are coded as a medical emergency and can’t be distinguished from other medical calls. In other cases, if a friend or bystander administers a lifesaving dose of Narcan, there is no record whatsoever of the incident.

Only fatal overdoses wind up in the medical examiner’s report.

Marathon County Medical Examiner Jessica Blahnik said a database upgrade now allows for more information regarding drug use history and other factors involved in each death. In 2019 and moving forward, each annual report will include such information, along with data on mental health, past substance abuse issues, history of childhood trauma and veteran status.

Accidental drug overdose is currently the leading cause of death in the United States for those under 50, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, exceeding those attributed to firearms, car crashes or homicides.