Digging Deeper: Overdose Epidemic - WQOW TV: Eau Claire, WI NEWS18 News, Weather, and Sports

Digging Deeper: Overdose Epidemic

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Eau Claire (WQOW) --  As the battle against drug use in our community wages on, Eau Claire police report a troubling trend is developing. They've seen a sharp spike in overdose cases, and believe the introduction of a new deadly drug into the Eau Claire community is to blame.

"The last five months, we've seen an increase. It almost looks like a three times increase," said Chief Deputy Chad Hoyord with the Eau Claire Police Dept.

Andy Falk with the Western Wisconsin Drug Task Force believes the spike is caused, not by a rise in drug use, but rather what is in those drugs.

"The increase in overdose has to do with an increased amount of powdered fentanyl that is available locally," said Falk.

Experts say fentanyl is 50-times more powerful than heroin.

"All they need is literally a pin-head size of pure fentanyl can be deadly," added Falk.

Officials say the drug is being sold as heroin. Instead, users are using fentanyl mixed with other substances. Falk said that means that ever use could be a deadly dose.

" When you don't even know the potency of what you're starting with, how can you tell what the end result is going to be? And a lot of time, these people are accidentally overdosing themselves," said Falk.

When an overdose call comes in, officials are taking extra precautions against the deadly drug. Fentanyl is micropulverized and can easily become airborn and ingested by those in close proximity. Because of that, Eau Claire officials say extra personnel respond to overdose calls: two officers, two emergency personnel and a three man fire crew. The extra help provides more eyes on the scene, as well as more options for life-saving backup.
 
"This is a priority call. Because you're life saving. These are things that we have to drop whatever else we are doing to go to these types of calls.," said Hoyord.

Overdose calls are also expensive. The Eau Claire Fire Department estimates that the cost of each call is $350, not counting the police presencse. Both agencies agree, the spike has led to some overtime in their departments. The rise in calls has also led to longer wait times for lower priority cases.

"Some of the things that we used to take care of in a short amount of time, may have to sit for awhile," said Hoyord. "It's not unusual that if we have a crash in a parking lot, that might wait two hours during a day."

 Police report a valuable tool is helping them turn a deadly trend, however. Wisconsin Department of Health Services shows that overdose deaths in Eau Claire County are down from 2006 to 2015. At the same time, numbers show a strike rise in the amount of naloxone administered.

 "It's just been very effective at reviving individuals that are in distress from opioid overdose. So it has actually prevented a lot of the deaths associated with overdose," said Falk.

While emergency crews deal with the overdose problem when cases occur, the Eau Claire City-County Health Department is working to address the problem before needles enter arms or pills are popped.

"There isn't a magic solution. If there was, if there was a magic wand, we would have used it along time ago. The consequences are too significant," said Lieske Giese with the health department.

The health department says their surveys show that substance abuse issues in Eau Claire begin around the age of 13 years old, with items found in the home.

"Access is a huge issue. Kids in Eau Claire County, on the survey, say it is very easy to access prescription drugs," added Giese.

All agree that the problem requires the full attention of the community.

""It isn't the cost to the individual person, it's to all of us as taxpayers, as people that support health care payments and as businesses," said Giese.

Falk added that unless something is done to address the problem, the cost to the community will continue to rise. "It's (fentanyl) really easy to obtain, it's inexpensive to purchase, it's highly powerful. It's just where opioid abuse and heroin abuse is trending."

The health department says that three-quarters of people that use heroin start by using legal prescription drugs. For more information on programs to curb drug use in our community, click here.

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