CDC presses for ‘urgent action’ to combat illicit drugs as overdose deaths balloon

La Crosse experts weigh in on escalating opioid crisis as drugs strengthen

LA CROSSE, Wis. (WKBT) — Nearly two-thirds of drug overdose deaths nationwide involve synthetic opioids like fentanyl, according to a new report from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Drugs community are stronger. They are easy to produce, and they are cheaper.

The biggest problem is users often don’t know what they are taking, and more people are dying as a result.  The margin of error is shrinking as drugs grow in strength. The opioid crisis began with drugs people can get with a prescription at a local pharmacy.

“And then it transitioned into heroin,” said Dr. Chris Eberlein, an emergency medical physician at Gundersen Health System. “Then it has transitioned into the synthetic opioids over the course of the last few years.”

These drugs are tougher to track because they are produced in hidden labs, Eberlein said. The drugs are easier to move around the country.

“From just the logistics of dealing this sort of substance, it’s got a lot of advantages,” Eberlein said.

A new CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report focused on data from May 2020 to April 2021. It estimated the number of drug overdose deaths in the United States was more than 100,000 over a 12-month period for the first time, with 64.0% of deaths involving synthetic opioids.

Robert Walensky, investigative coordinator of the Drug Task Force of the West Central Metropolitan Enforcement Group said, “We are dealing with pills that closely resemble actual pharmaceutical pills that are illicit fentanyl.”

“I can’t tell you the last time that I saw or even heard of pure heroin as all of it in this area now is mixed with illicit fentanyl,” Walensky said.

Fentanyl is 100 times stronger than heroin and it takes small amounts to produce dangerous outcomes.

“It’d be very, very easy to overdose,” Eberlein said. “You’re talking microgram differences.”

Fentanyl requires a substantial amount of Narcan or naloxone to treat a drug overdose patient.

“Fifteen years ago, our typical dose of Narcan was about .2 milligrams,” Eberlein said. “Now we’re starting off at four.”

It takes 20 times the amount of Narcan to save a life because of the strength of these drugs.

“Society as a whole is burdening the cost of this,” Eberlein said.

The CDC’s report calls for “urgent action” to slow the trend.

“If there wasn’t demand, the drug wouldn’t be here,” Eberlein said.

Eberlein said La Crosse leaders focus on the mental health side of this complex puzzle.

“We have to get to the point where these patients, their mental health and addiction is treated,” Eberlein said.

Stronger treatment to combat these stronger drugs.

Julie O’Donnell, an epidemiologist at CDC’s Injury Center, told News 8 Now that solutions include “enhancing access to treatment for substance use disorder, expanding harm reduction approaches that address key risk factors associated with illicitly manufactured fentany, ssuch as improving and expanding distribution of naloxone to persons who use drugs and their friends and family, distributing fentanyl test strips to test drug products for fentanyl, and increasing overdose education to help promote timely response to overdose by laypersons.”

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