Drug overdose deaths continue to climb in Milwaukee County

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MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) -- The Milwaukee County medical examiner conducted six autopsies Monday, May 17, for probable drug overdose deaths.

Those deaths rose in 2020 and are still climbing.

The number of drug overdose deaths increased by 30-percent compared to 2019.

So far this year, they're on pace to be 11-percent higher still.

"It impacts families and communities when individuals are -- when individuals overdose, and certainly when they die of overdose," said Dr. Constance Kostelac, assistant professor of epidemiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

She said most people are dying from one substance in particular, fentanyl.

"Three out of four overdose deaths involving fentanyl alone, or in combination with other substances," said Kostelac.

That troubles her because fentanyl is a very powerful manufactured opioid. More people are also overdosing on cocaine instead of heroin. But Milwaukee County is getting more money to tackle overdose deaths through the medical examiner's office, and providing shots to combat drug abuse beyond the jail.

"Previous incarnations of this program around the state have focused on getting the person covered while they're in the jail or the House of Corrections, until they're back in the community. This allows us to provide a continuity of care," said Milwaukee County Behavioral Health Administrator Michael Lappen.

What's still unknown is exactly why overdose deaths keep climbing. It's clear people are suffering, but Kostelac said researchers have more work to do exploring all the fallout from the pandemic.

"There will be continued research and exploration to understand how, how much of a connection there really is between an increase in the number of overdose deaths and other factors that we've seen during the pandemic," said Kostelac.

The medical examiner has 95 cases waiting for drug reports to come back.

The new money it's getting is supposed to help speed that process up.

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