When Kathrine Stewart cleans the premises outside the Positive Avenues drop-in center on the northeast edge of downtown, she often comes across needles presumably used by people shooting up with illegal drugs.

The number of needles she picks up has grown in recent months, said Stewart, a case manager with Lutheran Social Services, the agency that oversees Positive Avenues, 320 Putnam St. where homeless people and others can spend their days. 

“This morning I found a whole bunch of them,” Stewart said Monday. “I’m finding them all over.”

Those needles are a sign of a growing drug problem in Eau Claire, Stewart, local law enforcement officials and others say, and is among factors prompting more early deaths here. 

A study released Wednesday ranking the health of counties in Wisconsin shows premature deaths in Eau Claire County are on the rise. The study, compiled by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, states that “causes of premature deaths may be related to the overdose drug epidemic.”

A high suicide rate and alcohol-impaired driving deaths also are thought to be responsible for reduced life expectancy in Eau Claire County, the study states. The study compiled health outcome rankings for each of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, based on a broad list of health factors determining people’s health. 

According to the report, Eau Claire County does well compared with other counties statewide in terms of providing means of living healthy lives. The county ranked 13th in terms of offering access to factors determining health, such as medical care and places for physical exercise. 

However, health outcomes — how healthy residents actually are — was only middle of the road, with Eau Claire County ranking 35th in that category. The rising rate of premature deaths in the county was a significant factor in that ranking not being higher. 

 Premature deaths — people dying before age 65 — totaled 181 in Eau Claire County in 2016, according to the state Department of Health Services. That number was 175 in 2015 and 177 the previous year. 

Those figures generally have grown more rapidly than the county’s population. In 2010, early deaths in the county numbered 149. They totaled 156 in 2006 and 113 in 1996. 

Most of those deaths were the result of cancer, heart attack, suicide and various types of accidents, which include nonintentional injuries such as vehicle crashes and drug overdoses.

Eau Claire City-County Health Department director Lieske Giese isn’t surprised the County Health Rankings study lists premature deaths as a local concern. In recent years, drug and alcohol abuse and mental health challenges have been among the top priorities respondents to an annual county health survey say are most in need of addressing.     

“Here in Eau Claire and nationally, the trend for average life expectancy has decreased for the first time in a long time,” Giese said. “More people are dying young, and suicides and issues with drug and alcohol abuse are significant contributors to that.” 

Growing problem

Eau Claire police spokesman Kyle Roder said local law enforcement officers continue to encounter problems ranging from theft to physical altercations to exposure of children to dangerous substances because of rampant drug use in this region, particularly those related to methamphetamine. Those problems include deaths because of drug overdoses, he said. 

“We continue to see a lot of drug abuse here,” Roder said, “and anytime you have that, you’re going to have overdoses, unfortunately.”

Drug abuse use has been a problem in Eau Claire for a long time but seems to have become more prevalent the past few years, said Sue Howe, program director at Positive Avenues. 

“We are seeing more of it among our clients,” Howe said Friday. “It’s a real big issue.”

Stewart said the fight against drug abuse remains an uphill battle. Of more than 20 women she currently counsels as she works to link them to services, only one has custody of her children, she said. The others presumably lost custody because of drugs.

Jake Hobson, a 64-year-old in Eau Claire who said he has been homeless for the past six years, sees more people using drugs on the streets. 

“Everywhere I go I see used needles on the ground,” he said late Friday morning at Positive Avenues, while those around him prepared for a noontime meal.  “You see people mixing different drugs, mixing meth and heroin. Some of them are taking (cocaine) ... It’s an epidemic.”

Others referenced the abuse of highly addictive opioid painkillers for adding to the early death total in Eau Claire County. 

Alcohol abuse

Wisconsin residents are known for their affinity for alcohol, and those who call Eau Claire County home are no exception, according to a variety of statistics. 

Figures show 31 percent of vehicle-related deaths last year in the county involved alcohol. According to the County Health Rankings report, 1 of 4 adults here takes part in excessive alcohol consumption. And in 2015, 1 of 3 students reported having consumed alcohol in the past 30 days, far above the 18 percent national average for that figure.

Dr. Jennifer Eddy has seen the adverse health impacts of alcohol abuse in her job as a physician with Prevea Health in Eau Claire. The early death rate related to vehicular  crashes, falls and other accidents because of excessive alcohol use is significantly higher in Wisconsin than in most parts of the U.S., she said. Many suicides involve too much alcohol, she said. 

Eddy is part of the high-risk drinking action team for Eau Claire Healthy Communities, a multiagency effort to improve health in Eau Claire. That group has made significant inroads with teens to curb problem drinking, Eddy said. 

But recent push-back against updating the city’s public good order ordinance, an effort to enact more strict regulations against bad behaviors related to alcohol abuse, serves as a reminder that changes related to alcohol are difficult, she said. 

Still, Eddy remains committed to pushing for such change. The $1,600 per-person cost in Eau Claire for alcohol-related hospitalizations, not to mention premature deaths, is evidence alterations are needed. 

“Alcohol is such a big part of our culture here in Wisconsin,” she said. “I’m not against alcohol. I’m against excessive alcohol use that leads to health problems and death.”

‘Huge challenge’

Eau Claire public health officials and medical professionals have discussed mental health concerns for some time, but the topic set off alarm bells the past couple of years as the number of suicides here climbed, topping 20 in both 2015 and 2016, the most recent statistics available. 

Those who work in the mental health field said while Eau Claire has a high number of medical providers for its population, the number of services available for people experiencing mental health difficulties is lacking. People report waits of a month or more to see mental health specialists, and often needs are too acute to wait that long. 

In addition, too many people lack access to mental health services because they don’t have health insurance or because they can’t afford care even with insurance. 

“For many people in our community, accessing mental health treatment is a huge challenge,” said Brook Berg, family living educator with the county’s UW-Extension office who works on several local mental health initiatives. 

Among them is a $1 million Mental Health Matters grant Eau Claire and Chippewa counties received jointly last year. That money will be spent on a variety of mental health projects over five years. Much of the grant’s focus is on preventing mental health problems before they become full-blown, Berg said. 

Part of the effort focuses on better understanding how children react to trauma and how to build resilience in them. “We can’t change what has happened to these kids,” Berg said, “but maybe we can make them more resilient.”

Other groups, such as a mental health action team tied to Eau Claire Healthy Communities and the Eau Claire County BRAIN team, also are working to improve mental health here.  

“A lot of different people in our community are looking at (mental health) from a lot of different angles,” Berg said. “But it is going to take time to get to where we want to be. We certainly have a long way to go.”

Poverty impact

Local public health experts say a key to any success curbing the number of early deaths  is recognizing the role poverty plays in hindering healthy behaviors. 

It isn’t enough to simply identify someone who needs help addressing drug or alcohol addiction or mental health treatment, they say. Oftentimes, people in poverty who need help with those issues may not have transportation to their appointments, or they may not be able to get time off work to get where they need to go. Others may not have insurance and subsequently won’t see a health care provider for fear they can’t afford it. 

Still others may not live near a grocery store that offers quality foods, so they resort to shopping at gas stations that traditionally have far fewer healthy items for sale. Those working multiple jobs to make ends meet often have difficulty finding time to shop and exercise, exacerbating health issues. They sometimes live in unsafe housing. 

No matter how you look at it, Giese said, poverty plays a big role in how long people live. With 1 of 7  county residents living in poverty and 47 percent of Eau Claire’s population classified as either in poverty or as the working poor, improving health is a challenge. 

“There are so many of those variables for people who are just making ends meet,” Giese said, noting studies show people tend to make healthy choices when they have enough money to do so. “Lives are very complicated if you are living paycheck to paycheck.” 

Local government is attempting to boost the health of people living in a high-poverty area. The Invest Health Project, comprising representatives from the city, UW-Eau Claire, the Health Department and the Realtors Association of Northwestern Wisconsin, seeks to boost health in Eau Claire’s Randall Park neighborhood, a student area of older houses just north of Water Street, by improving housing and other changes, including better access to healthy food and social outlets. 

Stewart, the case manager at Positive Avenues, sees the many challenges to bettering the health of people in poverty each day she meets with her clients. Sometimes doing so seems overwhelming, she conceded. 

But Stewart remains hopeful because of interactions like one during the noon hour Friday, when a recovering meth addict she had assisted stopped by her office to thank her for helping him live a better life. Without that assistance, the man said, he might well have been part of the premature death statistics.    

“That’s what keeps me doing this,” a smiling Stewart said following that conversation. “Changing lives happens one person at a time.”

Contact: 715-830-5911, julian.emerson@ecpc.com