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Knowing the signs can prevent drug overdose deaths

Marking International Overdose Awareness Day Aug. 31, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) calls on state residents to take action to end drug overdose deaths, by learning the signs of an overdose and how to respond. Different drugs require different medical interventions and responses.

For example, naloxone is the proven method of reversing an opioid overdose, but it does not work for a stimulant like cocaine, which requires reassuring the patient, putting them in a comfortable position and making sure they don’t get overheated.

“Drug overdose is a significant public health issue in Wisconsin, with devastating impacts on individuals, families, and communities,” said DHS secretary-designee Andrea Palm. “Hundreds of people from all walks of life die or experience a permanent injury each year, from a drug overdose in our state. These deaths and injuries are preventable and help is available.”

According to the DHS Wisconsin Drug Overdose Death Dashboard, overdose deaths involving all drugs, excluding alcohol, increased by 10.5 percent in 2019, driven primarily by a nearly 10 percent increase in overdose deaths involving opioids.

There is evidence that the stress and uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is contributing to more harmful drug use. Preliminary numbers show that suspected opioid overdose Emergency Department (ED) visits increased 41 percent since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in Wisconsin, compared to the same time period in 2019.

There were 1,688 suspected opioid overdose ED visits from March through July, of this year, compared to 1,196 suspected overdose visits during the same period in 2019.

“Taking care of yourself and others may be more challenging right now,” said Palm. “It is OK to ask for help. Help is available. Treatment for harmful drug use works. Recovery is possible.”

Those struggling with any type of drug use can call 211 for the Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline. Operated by 211 Wisconsin through a grant from the DHS, this free and confidential service has handled nearly 10,000 calls since it launched in October 2018.

Resilient Wisconsin, a DHS effort launched in April, to help Wisconsin residents find healthy ways to cope with life’s challenges, features a directory of other helplines, hotlines and virtual support meetings for people struggling with any type of drug use.

To expand access to treatment services for harmful drug use, the DHS will also pilot a hub and spoke model to treating substance use disorders. This approach will link the expertise of regional addiction medicine specialists with local clinics and primary care providers, to manage the individuals’ unique health and treatment needs, and connect them with appropriate levels of care.

All drug overdoses are a medical emergency. Call 911 if someone is suspected of experiencing a drug overdose.