La Crosse County is on pace to match a record year for fatal drug overdoses, according to the county’s chief medical examiner.
Tim Candahl said Tuesday that 20 people in the county are either confirmed or suspected to have died of overdoses so far in 2021. That puts the county on pace to match or exceed the record of 39 set last year.
Candahl said at least two more people — and possibly three — died during the Independence Day weekend.
“We’re on par from last year’s record-setting cases, and that’s concerning,” Candahl said.
He said all three cases happened in the city of La Crosse.
La Crosse Police Department Sgt. Cory Brandl said there were two confirmed fatal cases over the long Independence Day weekend. He said police won’t know what triggered the overdoses until the autopsy reports come back. He said Narcan was administered in one of the cases.
Brandl said two fatal cases over a three-day period isn’t unusual and that both cases remain under investigation.
Candahl said it normally takes three months to complete an autopsy but suspects the most recent overdose victims took fentanyl.
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“The deaths we’re looking at probably have fentanyl involvement,” he said. “I’d be surprised if they didn’t.”
Fentanyl has been a particularly worrisome trend to area law enforcement and health care professionals. A synthetic opioid, fentanyl is far more potent than heroin.
“We’re seeing more and more fentanyl overdoses as opposed to heroin,” Candahl said.
He said fentanyl is often mixed with heroin, leaving users with little knowledge about what they’re taking.
“You don’t know what you’re going to get from a dealer,” he said. “It’s unregulated.”
Legal fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It’s used to treat severe pain and often administered to cancer patients. Most overdose cases stem from illegally manufactured fentanyl, which is more profitable on the street than heroin due to its concentrated form.
Brandl said the overdoses are another reminder about the consequences of substance abuse.
“All illegal substances can be dangerous and potentially lethal,” he said.
La Crosse Tribune reporter Steve Rundio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"The deaths we're looking at probably have fentanyl involvement. I'd be surprised if they didn't."
Tim Candahl, La Crosse County's chief medial examiner