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Trend Reversed: Drug-related deaths soar in 2020

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Health leaders now look to solutions for 2021

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - In 2020, 37 lives were lost in drug-related deaths.

Three cases are still pending as the La Crosse Co. Medical Examiner's Office awaits toxicology reports. It’s a new record for the county and an issue overshadowed by the pandemic.

The medical examiner's office reported 22 deaths in 2019. After several years of decline, the 68% increase has health officials alarmed.

Part of the increase has been attributed to the effects of the pandemic.

“One of our fears when this first started was what effect does this isolation and quarantine going to have on mental health, whether that’s addiction, bi-polar, schizophrenia, depression, anxiety, how is this going to affect them and we’ve seen where it has,” said Tricia Davis of the La Crosse Co. Medical Examiner's Office.

Davis examines toxicology reports and found a few of the common denominators that are leading to more overdose deaths. A rise in fentanyl and methamphetamine accounts for a majority of these fatalities. Sometimes both substances are found in a person.

"It’s easier to smuggle," said Davis. "It’s easier to make so that’s like the perfect storm and it gives them the same effect.” 

The volume of illegal drugs is also continuing to grow which is helping to fuel addiction and deaths in the county according to Fritz Leinfelder, an investigator with the La Crosse Co. Sheriff's Department.

"Our meth comes from Mexico up into Minneapolis and down through our area. Other avenues obviously exist that we know," said Leinfelder. "We’re getting different information from Chicago, Milwaukee, Madison.”

Leinfelder added that highway systems like I-90 play a major role in the transportation of these substances to La Crosse County.

In 2020, the county saw some of its largest seizures of fentanyl, including a 142-gram bust which holds a street value of nearly $30,000.

"Back in the day, you’d get an eight ball of meth or an eight ball of heroin, and that’d be a lot," said Leinfelder. "Now, we’re basically looking at more of quarter pounds, half pounds, and large amounts of these drugs coming in."

On top of quantity, fentanyl’s chemical makeup is constantly under transformation by dealers and often goes undetected. Analogs are consistently switched around and eventually the deadly substance is getting cut into other substances.

"They’re using heroin. Well, it’s actually fentanyl and much of the time is contaminated with benzodiazepines, sedatives, other opioids, and then even methamphetamine or other stimulants," said Dr. Anna Kelly, the medical director of the opioid treatment program at Gundersen Health System.

Dr. Kelly believes that culture can find the choice to use unacceptable but that that viewpoint can do more harm than good.

"It’s a brain disease, it's not a moral failing," said Dr. Kelly. "About 50% of it... Maybe a little more is genetically inherited."

The choice to use can be fueled by home life, a mental health problem, or trouble at school or work according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

"Was that a choice that they used for whatever reason? Yeah. But does that mean they don’t deserve to live?” said Davis.

Davis believes ending the stigma our community holds may be one of the biggest tools in the fight against addiction.

In part two of this Digging Deeper report Thursday night at 6, Mike Beiermeister looks at treatment options available in our communiy. He also talks to those who deal with people affected by substance abuse disorder and what they see as ways to a solution to the problem.

If you or someone you know is suffering from substance abuse, whether that be alcohol, opioids, or stimulants, we have provided some helpful resources below:

SAMHSA’s National Helpline:

Great Rivers 2-1-1:

Alliance to Heal:

Coulee Recovery Center:

Driftless Recovery Services:

Adult & Teen Challenge Western Wisconsin:

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Mike Beiermeister

WXOW Weekend Anchor and Reporter

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