In recent years methamphetamine abuse has ravaged the Eau Claire area, but painkillers and other opioid drugs that have prompted concerns nationally have shown up in growing numbers during the past year, local officials said.
While meth use has left its mark in the form of rampant crime, endangered children and an overcrowded court system and jail, opioid abuse all too often has an even more tragic impact: death.
Meth has many adverse impacts on communities, but the drug — which speeds up users’ nervous systems — normally doesn’t result in overdoses. Opioids, on the other hand, slow down people’s systems and cause death by suppressing heart rate when taken in too high of doses.
Those deaths have become all too common across Wisconsin during the past decade. Statewide, opioid-related deaths reported in 2008 totaled 333, a figure that rose to 827 by 2016, according to state Department of Health Services statistics. Experts say the death toll was likely even higher last year.
That figure did not rise correspondingly in Eau Claire County during that time, figures show. In 2008 nine county residents died from opioid overdoses compared with 10 such deaths in 2016.
However, during the past year opioids such as hydrocodone, fentanyl, oxycodone, heroin and others have become more commonplace in the region, law enforcement and public health officials said.
Those officials said meth remains the biggest drug of concern in the Chippewa Valley and elsewhere across northwestern Wisconsin, but heroin and other opioids are a growing worry. While death totals related to those drugs during the past year are not yet available, anecdotal reports indicate an increase in overdose deaths caused by those substances, they said.
Eau Claire Police Department spokesman Kyle Roder said law enforcement officers are worried about what appears to be a growing prevalence of opioids in the region.
“Yes, it is definitely a concern,” he said of abuse of those substances, many of which are commonly prescribed to alleviate pain. “Unfortunately, we are seeing overdoses happening way too often.”
At a meeting Monday to discuss meth and opioids in Eau Claire, local law enforcement members, public health officials and others said increasing abuse of those drugs is concerning because of those drugs’ deadly nature.
“Opioids and heroin are not something to turn a blind eye to,” Eau Claire police Sgt. Andy Falk, field operations supervisor for the West Central Drug Task Force, told an audience of about 70. “They are killing people.”
To combat the nation’s opioid crisis, last week U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams endorsed more Americans carrying the overdose antidote naloxone to help save lives. Naloxone can restore a person’s breathing after it is injected or sprayed into people’s nostrils, quickly bringing overdose victims back from near-death.
Eau Claire Fire Department/EMS staff carry naloxone and have used it to save lives, Roder said.
The use of naloxone is advocated by some as a life-saver, but others believe it allows drug users to act recklessly because they know there is a fix if they overdose.
Local public health officials said they back using naloxone and urge people to receive training for administering the substance if needed. While she doesn’t advocate drug abuse, Eau Claire City-County Health Department Director Lieske Giese said naloxone prevents deaths.
“We would rather have people out there who can keep others from dying,” she said.
Luanne Sojka, medication safety coordinator for Marshfield Clinic Health System, agreed with that sentiment. Arming properly trained people with naloxone will “help reduce the likelihood of opioid-related overdoses in our community,” Sojka said.