Rock County deaths from heroin and related substances rise dramatically

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Frank Schultz
Wednesday, June 7, 2017

JANESVILLE--New data show a 50 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in Rock County from 2015 to 2016, and it's looking worse for 2017.

The 2015-16 numbers are newly released from state Department of Health Services.

The data show 33 deaths in Rock County last year from overdoses involving prescription painkillers, heroin, illicit opioids such as fentanyl, and other drugs, all chemically related and highly addictive.

“I would imagine we'll be over that in 2017,” said Barry Irmen of the Rock County Medical Examiner's Department.

Last year's 33 deaths were a big jump from the 22 opioid deaths in Rock County in 2015. The previous 10-year high was 25 deaths in 2013.

Rock County had the eighth-highest rate of opioid deaths among the state's 72 counties in 2016, at 20.6 deaths per 100,000 population.

Milwaukee County had the highest rate, at 30.4. The state average was 14.3.

Neighboring Walworth County had a rate of 11.7 deaths per 100,000 the past two years, according to the statistics.

In raw numbers, Walworth County has seen 12 to 14 opioid deaths in each of the past five years.

Janesville police officer Chad Woodman, who works with drug users in hopes they will choose treatment, said there's no clear reason for Rock County's increase.

However, when a sudden spike in overdose deaths occurs in Ohio or Tennessee, the same is often seen here, Woodman said.

That's because the sources of illicit drugs in those states are the same sources that supply Janesville, Woodman said.

At least some of the heroin here was found to be laced with fentanyl or fentanyl-like compounds, Woodman said.

Fentanyl is a legitimate prescription drug, but at least part of the problem is illicitly made fentanyl and chemically related compounds.

The fentanyl-related drugs tend to be far more potent than heroin, which has led to a wave of deaths nationwide.

“A lot of the time, the people using it don't know that they are getting fentanyl mixed in or that they're getting fentanyl. They're told it's heroin,” said Shari Faber of Janesville Mobilizing 4 Change, a drug-abuse prevention organization.

“It's a dangerous time to be an opiate addict. Not that it's ever a good time,” Faber said.

Historically, some people have been able to maintain their heroin addictions for 20 or 30 years, Faber said, but that was when they could rely on a consistent potency.

With the various fentanyl-heroin mixes, users don't know how strong the drug is, so they use too much and die, Faber said.

Just how many of the local deaths are fentanyl-related might never be known.

Irmen said a special test is needed for each of the fentanyl-related substances, each costing hundreds of dollars.

It's cost-prohibitive to test every victim for all substances, and for some of the newer formulas, there are no tests, yet, Irmen said.

So what often happens is that the toxicology test is positive for heroin. Because there's no safe level of heroin, heroin is recorded as the cause—or partially the cause—of death, Irmen said.

The recently formed Rock County Rx Drug Abuse and Heroin Task Force and the state are hoping to start a new program to help the addicted, Faber said.

The program uses recovering users as peer recovery coaches, much like sponsors in Alcoholics Anonymous.

The idea is to match a coach with a person who has overdosed. The coach talks to the overdose victim and family members, tries to get the person into treatment and follows the person through recovery, Faber said.

"That's something we're trying to develop locally, and the state is starting to provide some seed funding for those types of programs,” Faber said.

Janesville alone saw 12 deaths last year from heroin and other opioids.

Janesville police have counted six opioid deaths this year so far, putting the city on a pace to match last year's number.

“I really hope it gets better,” Woodman said. “I want to see people stop dying. I want to see people stop overdosing.”

Last updated: 7:54 am Wednesday, June 7, 2017

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Opioid overdose deaths hit 10-year high in Rock County

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