Waukesha County declares fentanyl a ‘community health crisis’

Logan Rachwal was a freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Growing up, he loved to play baseball. As a student, he enjoyed writing poetry, drawing and cooking.

He was just 19 years old when his mother, Erin Rachwal, received a phone call from one of Logan’s friends on the night of February 14, 2021.

It was Valentine’s Day. Her friend said Logan wouldn’t wake up and asked Rachwal to call 911.

Rachwal learns from campus police that her son has died of a drug overdose. Hours earlier, after an argument with his girlfriend, Logan took a pill and fell asleep. He never woke up.

“And they (police) sat us down and told us he was deceased,” Erin Rachwal said. “And it was terrible … it was just terrible.”

Now, more than a year later, Rachwal is trying to educate others about the issue as drug overdose deaths have increased across the state and nation.

In 2020, the most recent full year for which state data is available, 1,277 Wisconsin residents died of drug overdose deaths. Twenty years earlier, that figure was 111.

In recent years, fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, has been on the rise.

Last week in Waukesha County, where fentanyl is linked to 71 percent of all drug-related deaths, officials declared the spread of the drug a “community health crisis.”

It’s an “extremely encouraging” step, Rachwal said.

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“Somebody needs to be screaming from the mountaintops in every state that this is killing our children,” she said.

In 2020, drug overdose deaths killed a record 95 people in Waukesha County. Figures from 2021 show 92 people have died from opipids, but that number is likely to rise as 10 autopsies are still pending.

Waukesha County Executive Paul Farrow signed the Community Health Crisis Declaration on Aug. 1. In Waukesha County, drug-related deaths have become the leading unnatural cause of death for adults ages 18-45.

“We know from what we’ve seen from other communities that this problem is going to get worse before it gets better,” Farrow said.

“There are too many people dying from this drug,” Farrow said of fentanyl.

In response to the declaration, county officials said they will soon begin a public information initiative using the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency’s “One Pill Can Kill” campaign. This effort shows how pills that contain fentanyl or methamphetamine can be deadly.

The county also will receive $17 million over the next 18 years through a $420 million state settlement with opioid drug distributors. These funds can be used to increase training on the use of Narcan or naloxone, a drug that reverses opiate overdoses. It can also be used to improve the treatment of those suffering from substance use disorders.

Waukesha isn’t the only community affected across the state.

In 2020, there were 545 overdose deaths in Milwaukee County. That number has increased to 643 in 2021. About 80 percent of reported drug deaths involved fentanyl, according to the Milwaukee Medical Examiner’s Office.

A 2022 report from Dane County found a record 138 people died of drug overdoses in 2020, the most recent data available.

Wisconsin has struggled with an opioid epidemic for years, but the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting social isolation have played a role in exacerbating the opioid crisis. A 2021 Wisconsin Department of Health report cited increased stress and isolation seen by the pandemic as possible reasons for the statewide increase.

DHS announced on August 1 that it has received more than $6 million in national prescription opioid settlement funds. The department plans to spend much of that money on Narcan and on fentanyl test strips that can be used to identify the presence of fentanyl in non-regulated drugs.

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