The City of Madison Finance Committee created a new project position to combat the abuse of opioids in Dane County.

According to the Wisconsin Department of Health Services, there were 97 deaths in Wisconsin this February due to misuse of opioids. The Department also found Dane County had among the highest percentages of opioid-related deaths in the state of Wisconsin at an average of 19.9 deaths for every 100,000 people in 2019.

In an email statement to the Badger Herald, Sarah Johnson, opioid project coordinator of Public Health Madison and Dane County, said neonatal abstinence syndrome is a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive opiate drugs while in the mother’s womb. During 2008-2017, the rate of NAS in Wisconsin increased from 20.9 to 97.1, an increase of 365%, according to Johnson.

“Dane County has been disproportionately impacted by the abuse of illicit opioids and prescription drugs as evidenced by data from Dane County Emergency Medical Services (EMS), hospital discharges, and medical examiner reports,” Johnson said.

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Johnson said from 2014-16, the opioid overdose death rate among Black Dane County residents (27.4 per 100,000) was twice as high as the opioid overdose rates among white Dane County residents (13.4 per 100,000), and this pronounced disparity is unique to Dane County as demonstrated by a comparison of opioid overdose death rates to the next largest and comparable county and to Wisconsin statewide.

During the same period,  Black Wisconsinites experienced opioid overdose rates of 18.3 per 100,000 while white Wisconsinites overdosed at a rate of 12.0 per 100,000.

According to the Dane County Position Description, the project objectives center around building and implementing a Dane County Overdose Spike Response Plan, increasing awareness of the effects of opioids in the community and improving collaboration between law enforcement and the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Detection Mapping Application.

As part of the new position’s project coordination and management function, according to the position description, the Public Health Specialist will be responsible for managing the implementation of the Overdose Fatality Review Action Plan to move recommendations and priorities into practice.

“The U.S Department of Justice established a Comprehensive Opioid Abuse Site-Based Program to reduce opioid abuse and the number of overdose fatalities by supporting a comprehensive, collaborative approach,” Johnson said.

The Madison Police Department, Public Health Madison Dane County, Dane County Department of Human Services, Madison Fire Department and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute received a COAP grant for $1.2 million to create their new “Pathways to Recovery Madison & Dane County” project, Johnson said.

The specialist will present communication strategies for overdose spikes, harm reduction methods and treatment and recovery resources to specified audiences as a part of the position’s Community & Partner Engagement & Collaboration function.

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The application process ended, and applicants are now under review by Dane County Employee Relations.

“Once we get the list of candidates, interviews will be scheduled and hopefully we will have someone employed by the end of October,” Johnson said.

Opioids, either extracted from the opium poppy plant or manufactured in a lab, ease pain and relax the body, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and can be especially dangerous because they can be “highly addictive” with a high overdose rate.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse also said prescription opioids and heroin are chemically similar and can produce a comparable high. Heroin is often easier to find and less expensive than prescription opioids, so a small percentage of patients switch to using heroin.

Like a litany of narcotics, opioids have also been known also cause withdrawal symptoms, which can begin anywhere from just a few hours afterwards to 72 hours after ingestion.

James Ford, assistant professor at the UW School of Pharmacy, has conducted research in addiction treatment aiming to help behavioral health organizations improve their processes of care, providing such organizations with the tools to treat patients faster.

“Addiction to opioids is a chronic condition,” Ford said. “It’s not something that is just going to go away.”

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Ford said the recent increase in opioid abuse may be due to the lack of treatment options in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. With job losses and fewer in-person opportunities to receive medical assistance, he said  it is extraordinarily difficult to access necessary care care.

Ford said pharmacists in Wisconsin can provide Vivitrol injections — which can be used to treat opioid addiction — and can also work with patients’ primary care doctors to help them access necessary medication.

“[Naloxone] is especially helpful for people who get a hold of opioids that are laced with fentanyl and other synthetic drugs that increase the likelihood of overdosing,” Ford said.

Ford said Madison could make more of an effort to engage their community pharmacists.

Ford said in addition to providing prescription opioid patients with Vivitrol injections, pharmacists are in a unique position to talk to patients about the importance of Naloxone and its ability to combat opioid overdoses.

“Carrying Naloxone is like carrying around an EpiPen for someone with a severe allergic reaction to bee stings,” Ford said. “[If you are addicted to opioids], why wouldn’t you always have it with you?”