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Digging Deeper: Public health alerts helping combat opioid problem in Wisconsin

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(WKOW) -- Many communities throughout southern Wisconsin are still struggling with an opioid problem. But a recent effort by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services aims to help combat the state's drug crisis.

In 2018, Wisconsin DHS started a new way to alert local authorities when they notice a sudden increase in suspected overdoses.

"These alerts are really helpful for our department and our community," said Sara Jesse, a community health strategist with Sauk County Health Department.

The data is entered by hospital emergency departments across the state in a system called "Biosense." An alert is issued to a county health department when it notices a spike over seven days.

"Before these alerts were issued we would get this data on an annual basis," said Jesse. "It's so important that we have this real-time data because usually these spikes are caused by unusually strong drugs that are being sold on the streets."

What triggers an alert, varies county-by-county, based on population and history of drug overdoses.

Jesse recalls the first alert she received in January 2020.

"It was six cases in five weeks, so we thought that was significant," said Jesse.

In response to a significant alert, Jesse notifies local authorities from hospitals to police.

"It puts us on alert," said Baraboo police captain Rob Sinden.

Sinden says once they get a DHS alert his department starts "listening closely to those ambulance calls."

"Our drug detectives are going to make those contacts in the community to let people know that there's an increased danger out there," said Capt. Sinden.

It's a heightened awareness that Wisconsin Department of Health officials says it the goal of these alerts.

"We want people to be informed and we want people to know what is happening in their area," said Paul Krupski, director of opioid initiatives with the Wisconsin Department of Health Services. "These alerts are an example of how we're trying to support counties and them allowing them to support others in their communities."

As of late February, since 2018, DHS has sent out 108 alerts to counties across the state. Within southern Wisconsin, Dane County has received the most with six alerts. Sauk County has been issued five alerts.

"There is so much work to do," said Jesse.

Both Jesse and Capt. Sinden agree, while the alerts are helpful in their fight against drug abuse in their communities, they say prevention is key.

"There's actually a whole spectrum of services that need to be provided by a community ... starting with primary prevention," said Jesse. "How do we keep people from using drugs dangerously, to begin with?"

Wisconsin DHS has also set up an Opioid Data Dashboard on its website, where residents can see the number of deaths and hospitalizations, among other data, related to opioid use in their area.

Jesse urges people who are struggling with opioid addiction or know someone who is, to call the Wisconsin Addiction Recovery Helpline by dialing 211. She also recommends reaching out to their local health department for resources.

Nick Buffo

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