WINNEBAGO COUNTY (NBC26) — Winnebago County experienced the highest number of reported fatal overdoses in 2020 and officials predict deaths will increase even more this year.
The number of overdose deaths in Winnebago County almost doubled from 2019 to 2020. According to the Winnebago County Overdose Fatality Review (OFR) team's annual report, 37 overdoses resulted in unintentional deaths last year. Of the reported fatalities, 23 were men and 14 women. The team reported a 250% increase in deaths among women last year.
Jennifer Skolaski, facilitator of the Winnebago County Overdose Fatality Review, said the pandemic had a significant impact on substance use and mental health in the community.
"Covid had a huge impact on everyone. Everyone's lives were very different, whether it was their jobs looked different, whether they struggled with their housing with the eviction moratorium, influx of income - some people had less, some people had more - (or) lack of child care," Skolaski said. "Then on top of that if you're struggling with addiction, everything is so much harder."
Based on preliminary numbers, Skolaski said they expect overdose deaths to rise even more this year.
"We know that the issue is getting worse and worse, and this year, 2021, is going to be like no other," Skolaski said . "Already at this year to 2020 we are very close to the numbers of last year."
Fentanyl is contributing to the majority of fatal overdoses. The synthetic opioid was listed in the toxicology reports for 76% of the overdose deaths in 2020. The report lists that all decedents died alone.
"What we saw was an increasing rise in fentanyl being cut into a variety of drugs," said Stephanie Gyldenvand, community health strategist at the Winnebago County Health Department. "So while heroin overall might be decreasing slightly in our community, the use of fentanyl being mixed into other drugs is causing a lot of the overdose deaths that we see currently."
Gyldenvand said meth and cocaine use are on the rise. She said fentanyl is being cut into those drugs, leading to overdoses and overdose deaths.
Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
"One of the things we also learned as we did the overdose death reviews this past year, and honestly from the very beginning, is that there's not once been Narcan found on the scene. Narcan was never used. So where we know Narcan exists, we don't see the overdose deaths," Gyldenvand said.
The Winnebago County Health Department has made it a priority to get Narcan out into the community to reduce the chance of fatal overdoses and distribute free nasal Narcan boxes to community members. The health department is working with other partners and agencies to do the same.
Capt. Chris Tarmann, UW Oshkosh Police Department and member of the OFR team, said the department brought organizations connected to substance use into their environment and they're training student workers, community service officers, and community advisers on how to use Narcan. He said they plan to make Narcan available at UW Oshkosh within the next few months.
"Fentanyl is obviously an issue, so that's why we keep talking about it. That's why we want to get Narcan into the hands of our people. Because even if you're trying to experience a situation that you didn't think you were in danger for, you might be in danger," Tarmann said. "I'm a guy who drives around with Narcan in his truck. I actually don't have a family member who's struggling with substance use, but I never know where I'm going to be. I don't know who's going to happen to do something right in front of me that I can help them with."
The OFR also recommends training on peer support, mental health and substance use to law enforcement and emergency medical systems; increasing the number of mental health clinicians who can provide integrated mental health and substance use services; identifying strategies to reduce overdoses that occur shortly after release from incarceration; and enhancing partners' awareness on the Child Protective Services process.
Another recommendation from the OFR to reduce the number of overdose fatalities is "We Heart You" cards, which help connect people to available resources like 211 and MyConnectionNew.org. People can order cards for free here.
The OFR team consists of 47 community partners across different sectors, including treatment, recovery, education, health, law enforcement, and city and county services. The goal is to prevent overdose deaths by determining points of intervention for those struggling with addiction.