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COVID’s dangerous side effect: Overdose epidemic rages on during pandemic

On a local and national level, overdoses have increased during the pandemic
Updated: Jun. 17, 2021 at 9:58 PM CDT
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - While the world battled a pandemic, an epidemic was still raging on, one that was fed by the isolation and despair many experienced during coronavirus. While attention was focused on COVID-19, the issue of overdoses went overlooked. Over the past year, first responders and medical professionals have seen a spike in overdoses, both on the national and local levels.

The Wisconsin Department of Health Services says there is a seasonality when it comes to opioid overdoses. However, the department did see a growing trend overall across the state in recent years.

According to the Wisconsin Ambulance Runs Data System, in 2018 statewide, there were 1,268 opioid overdose ambulance runs in the first quarter of the year. In the first quarter of 2019, that number was 1,208. In 2020, that number jumped to 1,869, and increased further in the first quarter of 2021 to 1,963.

When looking at the statewide average number of opioid overdose ambulance runs per month by quarter, the second and third quarters of 2020, and the first quarter of 2021, had the first, second, and third highest numbers in the past three years, respectively. Those quarters correspond with the onset of COVID-19 restrictions and life during the pandemic.

This trend holds true in Dane County. According to Dane County Emergency Management, “the highest volume of EMS responses to suspected opioid overdoses over the past three years took place between March and July of 2020.”

According to data from Sauk County Public Health, the county saw a spike in overdose deaths in 2020. From 2012 to 2019, the highest number of drug overdose deaths in a single year was 14. In 2020, that number was 23.

Nationally, there has also been a rise in overdoses during the pandemic. A study published in February 2021 in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Psychiatry looked at emergency room visits from December 2018 to October 2020. According to the study, weekly counts of overdoses were up to 45% higher in 2020 compared with the same week in 2019. From late 2018 to mid October 2019, the study recorded an average of nearly 13,000 drug related overdoses in emergency departments weekly. In roughly the same period a year later, there were nearly 15,000.

“We have an underlying kind of smoldering epidemic that’s never gone away,” said Dr. Mike Repplinger, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UW Madison.

Repplinger said in the data he has seen, there has been a “dramatic increase” in overdoses.

“The data are pretty clear that there has been an increase, a significant increase, in the number of both overdoses that require emergency treatment and then overdoses leading to death,” Repplinger said.

Dr. Mike Repplinger, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UW Madison, has seen data...
Dr. Mike Repplinger, an associate professor of emergency medicine at UW Madison, has seen data that reflects a rise in overdoses during the pandemic.(NBC15)

Repplinger is not the only one seeing the spike in the local community. Fourteen years ago, Tanya Kraege began her own recovery journey. Now in long term recovery, she helps others on that path through her work at Safe Communities.

“Recently we lost a family member to overdose as well,” Kraege said. “I’ve continued to watch people in my professional or personal life over the past year die from overdoses.”

Safe Communities organizes programs and recovery coaches hoping to prevent drug poisonings. As the drug poisoning prevention recovery coach team program manager, the mission to prevent overdoses and help people to recovery is both personal and professional to Kraege. Kraege said she has seen a spike in overdoses over the course of the pandemic.

Tanya Kraege helps others on their recovery journeys through her work at Safe Communities.
Tanya Kraege helps others on their recovery journeys through her work at Safe Communities.(NBC15)

The question becomes why this problem became worse during the pandemic. With COVID-19 shut downs and restrictions, many people had limited or decreased contact with others, something Kraege believes was a contributing factor.

“I’ve seen people with long term recovery return to use because some of the things they were doing to support them in their growth they weren’t able to get to,” she said.

Some of those resources included seeing counselors or groups face to face. Kraege said while there were options available online, the virtual landscape did not work for everyone. Additionally, she said some treatment centers required a COVID test and isolation period before admittance, options that Kraege said were not always feasible for someone who was regularly using drugs.

In addition to the safety precautions and orders that came with the pandemic came the consequences of the pandemic itself.

“When people are isolated, when people are losing their jobs, losing their homes, all of these things are very significant stressors or we would call them really trauma, traumatic events for patients that cope by using opioids,” Repplinger said.

2020 was a year not only marked by a global pandemic, but by racial strife, protests and riots, and movements for social justice. Kraege said the grief the community felt not only from losses caused by the virus, but from current events, exacerbated the problem.

“What do we use in our communities feel better? Usually it’s the quickest thing that’s closest to us,” she said. “Whether that be the alcohol or the neighbor that has marijuana or the pill that we found in grandma’s medicine cabinet.”

Officer Tim Francis has been with the Middleton Police Department since 2018. While he said at this point in his career in law enforcement not much surprises him anymore, when he first started out, that wasn’t the case.

“I certainly wasn’t aware that the overdoses and the heroin and hard drug use was going to be as prevalent as it is,” he said.

Officer Tim Francis has responded to overdose calls for the Middleton Police Department.
Officer Tim Francis has responded to overdose calls for the Middleton Police Department.(NBC15)

Francis works overnights, and said he has seen a handful of overdoses in the past months. However, he said colleagues on other shifts see more of them.

“Listening to the radio scanning different channels and agencies, the tones for pulseless non breathers come out quite a bit more often, and usually it’s pretty easy to pick up on whether or not those are overdose related and it seems like a lot of them recently unfortunately have been,” he said.

Middleton Police Department squad cars are equipped with Naloxone, for use in opioid overdose calls.

“It was sort of that perfect storm, everything happened at once and we certainly as a society changed what we prioritized, and I think the opiate issue and opiate pandemic kind of fell to the wayside of the COVID pandemic,” Francis said.

Now that the world is starting to open up again, Francis said he hopes that people become more optimistic in their outlook on life, and begin to have things to look forward to again. Hopefully, the return to normal will bring a decline in overdoses.

“It’s hard for me to say whether or not this will get better or worse,” he said. “I think it’s good that we’re sort of getting out of the pandemic in stages and I think that’s going to bring a lot of positivity to people.”

If you or someone else are struggling with substance abuse, you can call the Safe Communities Recovery Coach Helpline at 608.228.1278, or visit their website for additional details. Dane County has the Behavioral Health Resource Center with information on accessing services. Dr. Repplinger also founded an opioid treatment facility in Madison called Monarch Health. In the case of a medical emergency, call 911.

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