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Sherri Smith behind urns

In this 2016 photo, Sherri Smith, of Portage, who lost her twin sons to drug overdoses in Madison, sits by their urns. Tony Sparks, whose urn and candle are on the right in the photo, died in 2005 at age 23 from an overdose of alcohol and methadone. Jesse Sparks, whose urn and candle are on the left, died from an apparent heroin overdose in 2016 at 34. 


Emergency room visits for suspected opioid overdoses increased 109 percent in Wisconsin from July 2016 to September 2017, the highest spike among 16 states closely tracked, federal health officials said Tuesday.

The ER data show trends in the opioid abuse epidemic before deaths do, said Dr. Anne Schuchat, acting director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which conducted the study.

The data also highlight the need to enhance mental health services, medication-assisted treatment for addiction and distribution of naloxone, the overdose-reversing drug, Schuchat said.

“This is a very difficult and fast-moving epidemic,” she said. “This data sends a wake up call about the need to improve what happens when patients leave the emergency department.”

Dr. Brian Sharp, who works in the ER at UW Hospital, said UW has seen an uptick in overdoses of prescription opioids and illicit opioids such as heroin and illegally formulated fentanyl. Many patients are in respiratory distress, requiring resuscitation and sometimes ventilation.

“Seeing frequent overdoses, especially in young patients, can take an emotional toll,” Sharp said.

Jennifer Miller, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Health Services, said many suspected opioid overdoses in ERs don’t become confirmed cases.

“As medical professionals are becoming more aware of the potential for a patient to have an opioid overdose, the number of suspected cases will increase,” she said.

In Wisconsin, 827 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016, a 35 percent increase from 2015. In the first nine months of 2017, the state had 609 opioid deaths, a 5 percent decrease from the same period in 2016.

Miller attributed the decline in opioid deaths “to increased awareness about the opioid crisis, as well as an increase in the use of naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses.”

Pharmacies in the state dispensed 4.1 million opioid prescriptions in 2017, down 20 percent from 5.1 million in 2015, according a report last week from the Controlled Substances Board.

The CDC study found that the rate of ER visits for suspected opioid overdoses, from July 2016 to September 2017, went up 30 percent nationally and 35 percent in the 16 states, which got federal money to closely track fatal and nonfatal opioid overdoses.

The rate rose most in the Midwest — 70 percent, including a 65 percent hike in Illinois.

Most of Wisconsin’s increase came in late 2016 and early 2017, with the trend slowing last spring and summer. During the entire period studied, the state had 3,427 ER visits for suspected opioid overdoses.

The rate of such ER visits rose 105 percent in Delaware and 81 percent in Pennsylvania. In Kentucky, which has been hit especially hard by the opioid abuse epidemic, the rate dropped 15 percent, which could reflect fluctuations in drug supply, Schuchat said.

The other states in the study were Indiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina and Ohio, Rhode Island and West Virginia.

Nationally, ER visits for suspected opioid overdoses went up for all regions, all age groups, men and women.

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams told reporters Tuesday that President Donald Trump’s administration is trying to decrease supply of and demand for opioids, and reduce the stigma of addiction. Adams said his brother has long struggled with addiction.

“The science is clear — addiction is a chronic disease and not a moral failing,” he said.


David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.