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La Crosse County overdose deaths up thus far in 2020
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La Crosse County overdose deaths up thus far in 2020

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Overdose deaths in La Crosse County are on track to reach a record high this year, La Crosse County officials announced Friday.

Just five months into 2020 there have been 12 confirmed overdose deaths in the area, with an additional six under investigation as toxicology results are pending, according to La Crosse County Medical Examiner Tim Candahl.

At 18 cases, the county would be only four away from 2019’s total of 22, with the year not yet half over. The highest number of overdose deaths on recent record was 28 in 2017.

Of this year’s 12 confirmed overdose victims, 10 had fentanyl in their system, and six tested positive for the combination of fentanyl and methamphetamine.

Dr. Chris Eberlein, an emergency physician at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, told Wisconsin Public Radio the numbers for overdose deaths amount to a 63% increase so far this year.

“I think that’s really due to a multitude of factors, including the fear, anxiety and depression in everyone in general, especially those that struggle with their mental health issues even prior to the pandemic,” he said.

Those factors coupled with economic losses, social isolation and less access to treatment opportunities like counseling are likely all playing a role in the increased overdoses, Eberlein said.

While it’s too soon to tie a link to the overdose deaths and COVID-19, health care professionals are concerned about there being fewer opportunities to seek out care for substance abuse and people delaying care out of fear of the disease.

Many routine counseling sessions were canceled because of the outbreak, Eberlein said. And while some patients have been able to rely on virtual visits, others, because of costs and technology restraints haven’t had that ability.

“This (year) is a definite change in what we had been seeing,” Eberlein said.

Statewide, the trend has been similar to the numbers in La Crosse County. In 2018, 1,076 people died from drug overdoses, down from 1,185 in 2017.

Opioids remain the most common cause of all drug-related deaths. In 2019, they made up about 75% of the deaths statewide, down from 80% in 2016.

Eberlein stressed that despite the COVID-19 pandemic, resources are still available for those struggling with addiction — and the pandemic is not a reason to forgo care.

WPR News reporter Mary Kate McCoy contributed to this report. Emily Pyrek can be reached at emily.pyrek@lee.net.

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