Fentanyl deaths due to overdose have increased by 97 percent since 2019 in Wisconsin, the state’s health department announced in an advisory to warn residents about drugs laced with synthetic substances, especially fentanyl.
The department said it has observed “an increasing number of overdoses related to fentanyl and other synthetic opioids over the past few years” and warned that people who use multiple substances “are at an increased risk for overdose.”
“Over the last year, synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, were identified in 91 percent of opioid overdose deaths and 73 percent of all drug overdose deaths,” the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) stated in a public health advisory.
“Provisional data shows the number of fentanyl overdose deaths in Wisconsin grew by 97 percent from 2019 (651) to 2021 (1,280).”
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid up to 50 times more potent than heroin, and up to 100 times stronger than morphine. Manufacturers of illegal drugs add fentanyl to heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and other drugs to make the drugs more powerful and cheaper to produce.
The Wisconsin DHS noted that cocaine deaths involving synthetic opioids “increased by 134 percent from 2019 (182) to 2021 (426), and it is estimated that as many as 40 percent of counterfeit pills contain enough fentanyl to be lethal.”
‘Necessary to Sound the Alarm’
Karen Timberlake, the department’s secretary-designee, called the situation a public health crisis and said it is “necessary to sound the alarm to prevent unnecessary deaths.”
“[W]e can’t ignore the greater risks people face by not knowing what is included in the drugs they are taking,” she said in a statement.
Dr. Jasmine Zapata, who is the chief medical officer in the department’s Bureau of Community Health Promotion, said in a statement: “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.
“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.”
The department’s advisory states that fentanyl test strips are legal in the state and available for purchase, and are also being distributed for free at some pharmacies, syringe service providers, and opioid treatment programs. It points out that fentanyl is otherwise hard to detect. “You can’t see it, taste it, or smell it. A tiny amount—as little as two grains of salt—is enough to kill someone.”
“Fentanyl is being found in all types of drugs including stimulants (cocaine and methamphetamine) and opioids. It is being pressed into pills and mixed into other drugs. A person may think they are using one substance, but they are instead using a substance mixed with fentanyl,” the advisory states.
The Wisconsin DHS is also offering more naloxone, a medication commonly referred to as the brand name Narcan, to help reverse a fentanyl overdose and potentially save a person’s life.
“Narcan is available at pharmacies, local public health departments, and community-based organizations throughout Wisconsin. It’s important to note that because of the strength of fentanyl, multiple doses of Narcan may be necessary,” the department states. “If you suspect someone is overdosing, call 911 immediately.”
Biden Admin Border Policies Criticized
Wisconsin’s announcement comes amid news that seizures of fentanyl at the southern U.S. border increased by over 200 percent in July. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) statistics released on Aug. 15 showed that border agents seized 2,130 pounds of fentanyl—which is more than three times the 702 pounds that were intercepted in June, and which exceeds the previous monthly record of nearly 1,300 pounds set in April.
It’s also nearly equivalent to the total amount of fentanyl confiscated in all of 2019.
Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the ranking Republican member of the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, issued a criticism aimed at the Biden administration in response to the news.
“The lack of responsible border policies by this administration is allowing Mexican transnational criminal organizations to push deadly substances into communities in Ohio and traffic unlawful migrants into the country,” he said in a statement on Aug. 15, adding, “I have told the administration countless times, this is no time to end policies like Remain in Mexico or Title 42 that deter smugglers and migrants.”
Hannah Ng contributed to this report.