By Edgar Mendez
This story was originally published by Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service, where you can find other stories reporting on fifteen city neighborhoods in Milwaukee. Visit milwaukeenns.org.
More young people are dying in the state, according to a new report from the Wisconsin Policy Forum, a nonpartisan, independent policy research organization.
The study, which uses data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that older adults in Wisconsin are dying at slower rates than they were 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, those in their 20s, 30s and 40s experienced a significant increase in mortality rates from 2001 to 2021, the time frame examined for the report.
COVID-19 is one recent reason for the uptick, according to the report. However, the primary culprit is a familiar one — opioids. More specifically — fentanyl.
Another significant finding of the report was that the overdose mortality rate for Black Wisconsinites increased ninefold from 2001 to 2021. In 2021, the overdose mortality rate in the state for Blacks was 91 deaths per 100,000 residents, which is more than double the rate nationally for Blacks (42.9).
Desilynn Smith, clinical director at Gateway to Change, a treatment center located at 2319 W. Capitol Drive., said she’s seen an influx of patients in that age range, and even younger.
“I’ve had about a 60% increase in clients between 19 and 30 over the past two years, and I don’t see it easing up,” she said. She blames the increase in addiction and deaths on fentanyl.
What makes fentanyl so dangerous, she said, is that most people aren’t aware they’re using it.
“It’s not fentanyl alone. It’s fentanyl mixed with cocaine and other drugs,” Smith said.
According to Mark Sommerhauser, communications director and policy researcher for the Wisconsin Policy Forum, the death rate in the state for those ages 25 to 44 rose sharply over the past 20 years.
Broken down by cohorts, the death rate increased by 80% for the 25-29 group; 72% for ages 35-39; and 57% for those 40-44.
Overdose deaths accounted for well over half of the mortality rate increase among those groups. In total, there were more than 1,100 more deaths among this group in 2021 than there were in 2001.
“Their death is likely to have a really severe impact on other people,” he said. “Most dramatic would be for their children and their partners, but also people losing a brother, son or daughter.”
Overdose deaths in Milwaukee County
In Milwaukee County, 530 drug overdose deaths were confirmed in 2022, with 300 more deaths pending toxicology reports, according to Karen Domagalski, operations manager for the Medical Examiner’s Office.
Not all of the pending cases are overdose deaths, she said.
In line with trends identified in the report, a large percentage (42%), or 222, of the confirmed victims were between the ages of 25-44. Last year, 45% of drug overdose victims fell within that age range.
Smith of Gateway to Change lost her husband, Hamid Abd-Al-Jabbar, who worked as a violence interrupter for 414Life, in 2021 to a fentanyl overdose. She said since being hit personally, she’s been on a mission to increase peer-to-peer support for those struggling with addiction and to help individuals realize that the cocaine they’re using is likely laced with fentanyl.
“I don’t think there is any cocaine that’s not been affected,” she said. “People who don’t even realize it are becoming addicted to opioids.”
More somber numbers
The report noted the disparity in overdose deaths among African Americans statewide.
In Milwaukee County, African Americans made up 39% of all confirmed drug overdose victims in 2022, compared to 37% in 2021. Two hundred and seven of the 530 confirmed drug overdose victims in the county were Black, compared to 249 whites.
Other victims include 53 Hispanics; eight Native Americans; five Asian/Pacific Islanders; two East Indians; and six individuals who were identified as multi-race.
In terms of gender, 375 victims were men and 155 were women. The youngest victim this year was a 1-year-old girl who died from fentanyl exposure, while the oldest was an 83-year-old woman.
Local efforts to stem overdose deaths
The Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors recently appropriated more than $11 million for treatment, abatement, harm reduction and other programs to help address the opioid epidemic.
“Milwaukee County is doing all we can to address acute community needs like affordable housing and fatal drug overdoses,” County Executive David Crowley said in a statement.
The funds will support 15 community projects over the next three years, including those that provide harm reduction supplies, education and treatment for justice-involved youths and opioid prevention projects.
The $11 million is part of a larger $26 billion national legal settlement against opioid manufacturers that helped to fuel the opioid epidemic. Wisconsin will receive $400 million from that settlement, $70 million of which will come to Milwaukee County.
Also in Milwaukee, county officials and local groups have begun work on a plan to install Nalox-Zone boxes for free in public locales. The vending machine style boxes will contain Naloxone, a prescription medication that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose; testing strips for fentanyl; and other free supplies.
Ways you can make a difference
The county will host virtual listening sessions from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21 and from 10 a.m.to noon Thursday, Feb. 23 to get input from the community on how the settlement funds should be spent
An informational meeting for individuals to learn more about the plan to install Nalox-Zone boxes will be held from 4:30 p.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, March 3, at Tres Hermanos Restaurant, 1332 W. Lincoln Ave. Ideal candidates for the boxes, according to organizers, include restaurants, bars, gas stations, liquor stores, schools and libraries.
Need help for yourself or a loved one?
Where to find substance abuse resources in Milwaukee | Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service (milwaukeenns.org).