Authorities say awareness essential to prevent rising number of overdose deaths

April 5, 2019

No one is immune to the far-reaching effects of opioid addiction, which claimed 18 lives in Columbia County in 2018, according to Columbia County Sheriff Roger Brandner.

At least 75 people have died in Columbia County from overdoses during the last six years, he said.

Brandner lost a cousin to opioid addiction. Portage Police and Fire Commission President Tom Drury said his son battled addiction and sought treatment.

“This is an everybody problem,” Brandner said.

Although Brandner said he doesn’t want to scare people, he said in a public presentation last week that opioid addiction continues to plague the county and nation at large, and he believes awareness is one of many necessary steps to pushing for sobriety.

Brandner and Drury are actively involved in Prevention and Response Columbia County, or PARCC, an initiative to try to reduce misuse of prescription drugs and heroin partly by working more closely with families on addiction recovery.

That goal requires a three-pronged approach of education and prevention, enforcement and accountability, followed by the treatment and recovery phase, Brandner said.

The faith community is especially important in the recovery process, Drury said. That’s why many presentations on the opioid crisis are held at churches.

In 2018, Brandner said Columbia County dispatchers received 103 calls for an ambulance due to an overdose.

PARCC was formed just over four years ago, when Lodi Police Chief Scott Klicko saw a need for greater action and called a coalition together, Brandner said.

Since then, the program has aimed to prevent as many opioid deaths as possible in Columbia County and push for a more proactive rather than reactive approach to law enforcement and addiction treatment.

“We have to take a different viewpoint on it, because we’re losing the battle,” Brandner said. “Now, we’re heavily involved in the treatment world.”

Personnel involved in the initiative see awareness of what they call gateway drugs as a key component in educating youths.

Program Director Paula Enger said that while alcohol consumption by high school students is down by 5 percent from 2011 to 2017, surveys suggest about 12 percent more students have reported from 2015 to 2017 that they don’t see a high risk factor in using prescription drugs or marijuana.

Brandner said he used to pay less attention to the risks of marijuana when he first joined law enforcement, but now the drug is a different entity. He said many dealers are lacing both marijuana and heroin with Fentanyl, a deadly drug that is 100 times more powerful than morphine.

Even in cases of sports-related injuries or illnesses for which doctors offer prescription pain medications, Brandner said he won’t risk it for himself nor his family. They simply work with Tylenol and ice, because many people who become addicted to opioids were first hooked on prescription medications and ran out, he said.

Drury said without the combined efforts through PARCC, more people would be dying of overdoses.

He credits Columbia County’s Medication Assisted Treatment and Recovery program as leading a highly effective community-based drug treatment program that focuses on working closely with families of people suffering from addiction.

All sheriff’s deputies now carry Narcan, which can counteract the effects of an overdose and even revive a person.

The number of providers Vivitrol, a prescription drug that can help curb addiction, has also increased from two to 40 since PARCC’s origins in 2015, Drury said.

But authorities still see a dire need for improvement.

Columbia County ranks high in Wisconsin for occurrences of neonatal abstinence syndrome, overdose ambulance runs, overdose deaths and opioid-related hospitalizations per 100,000 residents, Brandner said, citing state Department of Health Services statistics.

A sharp increase in the number of drugged drivers has surpassed the number of drunk drivers, Brandner said, noting many impaired drivers have non-prescribed drugs or marijuana in their system instead of alcohol.

Roughly 81 out of every 100 residents has some sort of prescription, Brandner said.

The Portage Police Department has a waste bin near its front doors for that reason, so people can get rid of their pills safely and prevent drugs from being misused.

“We’re very pleased the number of people who use this drop-off bin,” Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey said. “We have to empty it often.”