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Report: Opioid overdoses in Wisconsin increased since start of COVID-19 pandemic

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Wisconsin has seen an increase in opioid overdoses since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, the state health department said Tuesday.

Without directly stating the then-emerging coronavirus last year caused a boost in suspected overdoses in the yearslong opioid public health crisis, the Department of Health Services suggested COVID-19 played a role, particularly during a large increase in overdoses in the spring of 2020.

In a report published Tuesday, DHS said social isolation, the stress of the pandemic and increased opportunities for drug misuse may be contributing factors to a rise in overdoses.

Also Tuesday, the state health agency said it will spend $10.4 million over five years on various opioid abuse-related efforts, such as covering room and board costs not covered by Medicaid at treatment centers and for prevention programs targeting Black and Native American communities. The money comes from a $573 million, multistate legal settlement with a consulting firm that worked with drug companies to promote the use of opioids.

For the report, DHS studied emergency room visits and ambulance rides between January 2019 and March 2021. While as a whole overdoses increased in both categories, the numbers fluctuated above and below forecasted levels, DHS said.

Based on ambulance rides, the state averaged 8.9 opioid overdose incidents per 100,000 people before COVID-19, but that number grew to 13.1 per 100,000 people from March 2020 to August 2020 — a 47% increase.

That figure dropped to 11.1 per 100,000 when COVID-19 was surging in the state between September and November of last year and dipped slightly to 11 per 100,000 from December through this past March.

Emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses followed a similar trend of ballooning at the start of the pandemic, DHS said. The number of visits dropped, on average, below forecasted numbers between last September and this past March but remain above pre-pandemic figures.

The state agency hasn’t yet finalized the number of fatal opioid overdoses in 2020, but DHS expects it to be more than 1,200, compared to the 916 opioid overdose deaths in 2019. Last month, the federal government reported the country as a whole soared to a record 93,000 overdose deaths in 2020.

Emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses followed a similar trend of ballooning at the start of the pandemic, officials said.

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Logan Wroge is a general assignment reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal. He has been with the newspaper since 2015.

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