La Crosse County drug overdose deaths on the rise

LA CROSSE CO., Wis. (WBKT) - Drug overdose deaths continue to go up nationally, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, and that trend is mirrored in La Crosse County.

Statistics from the La Crosse County medical examiner's office can now be found on the county website. Dating back to 2014, they show a steady increase in drug-related deaths, and looking at numbers so far this year, health officials expect that trend to continue.

“Sad to say, it's on a continuous increase,” Tim Candahl said.

In his ten years as La Crosse County's medical examiner, Candahl has watched overdose deaths rise.

"When I first began working here in the office full-time, we were maintaining anywhere from zero to 12,” he said. “Now we’re pushing 12 to 20, even higher for the last couple of years."

According to the website, there were nine drug-related deaths in 2014, 12 in 2015, 25 in 2016, and now, less than nine months into 2017, 28 drug-related are listed.

This year’s number includes deaths such as drownings or car crashes, where drugs may have played an indirect role. However, even excluding those types of deaths, county health educator Al Bliss said it's safe to say the county has had about 21 overdose deaths this year.

Four of those deaths still have pending autopsy results.

"Unfortunately, the number of overdose deaths and hospitalizations has gone up in the county,” Bliss said.

Meth, cocaine, alcohol and prescription drugs are commonly found in overdose deaths, often in some kind of combination.

"In the past it may have been a combination of one or two drugs,” Bliss said. “Now, we're seeing three or four or more."

Bliss, however, can point out one highly-talked about drug that's missing from this year's overdose death report.

"There's zero heroin,” he said. “I'd like to think that seems to be promising, but in a sense it seems like more of a shift because we're seeing more overdose deaths with illicit drugs and even legal drugs, too."

Candahl said things could be much worse. Just because there are zero heroin deaths doesn't mean there haven't been overdoses.

"There's people out there that are saved every day,” Candahl said.

Gundersen Tri-State Ambulance is expecting to administer more than 200 doses of the opiate-reversal drug naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, this year.

"If it wasn't for Narcan, my office would be running ragged with overdoses all the time," Candahl said.

Candahl believes shortage of mental health care access is at the heart of the overdose epidemic.

"As long as we continue to have mental health problems in our country, I don't see it going away,” he said.

In honor of International Overdose Day at the end of the month, the Heroin and Other Illicit Drug Task Force will host an event Wednesday, August 30, at the Northside Community Police Station in La Crosse. It starts at 10:30 a.m., and speakers will recognize those affected by the overdose epidemic and talk about what's currently being done to address it.

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