Drug overdose deaths soar amid pandemic: 'What we need to do is replace stigma with hope'

MILWAUKEE -- Milwaukee County is logging never-before-seen numbers in drug overdose deaths.

Officials say the county is on track to shatter 2019's record-high number of 418 lives lost -- and medical experts say the current pandemic is playing a role.

Dr. Michael Genovese

"There's no shame in seeking treatment. There's only a downside in not seeking treatment," said Dr. Michael Genovese.

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there was another crisis health care professionals were facing -- the opioid epidemic. Dr. Genovese with Acadia Healthcare said it is still plaguing communities.

"This has been a silent epidemic going on for quite some time," Dr. Genovese said.

Numbers show in 2019, the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner's Office saw 418 lives lost to drug overdoses -- a record for the region. Officials predict this year 640 lives will be lost to drug overdoses.

"That's 640 families that can`t get their family member back," Dr. Genovese said.

The doctor said the COVID-19 pandemic is a factor.

"People have been forced to quarantine in their house. They have not been able to go to support meetings," Dr. Genovese said. "People who have an existing diagnosis of depression or anxiety have their symptoms exasperated."

Forensic Technical Director Sara Schreiber said the county's drug overdose deaths could soon surpass those dying from the coronavirus.

Forensic Technical Director Sara Schreiber

"We've had 241 cases to drug-related causes. We've had 360-plus related to COVID," Schreiber said.

This past weekend, 26 people died of probable drug overdoses.

"Don't forget to look for those in your circle that might need help and support during this time," Schreiber said.

It is a message echoed by health care professionals.

"What we need to do is replace stigma with hope," Dr. Genovese said.

Acadia Healthcare has 13 comprehensive treatment centers in Wisconsin. Experts urge anyone struggling with substance abuse disorders to reach out for help.

The Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline is also available statewide 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Just call 211 or 833-944-4673.