WEST ALLIS, Wis. — Health departments across Wisconsin are warning residents about an increased risk of overdose from opioid use. Data from the Milwaukee County medical examiner shows from 2018 to 2021, fatal overdoses increased by 68%, from 364 to 613.
The West Allis Fire Department sends the first responders to any call for an overdose across the city. Substance Use Disorder Coordinator Chris Williams leads the response team, and said EMTs have answered overdose calls from every demographic in almost every West Allis neighborhood.
“Addiction doesn’t know color, doesn’t know race, doesn’t know boundaries,” Williams said. “It can happen to any of us.”
An EMT’s immediate actions saves lives virtually every day, but the department’s overdose response continues beyond the initial call. After treating a resident for an overdose, an EMT returns to the scene to follow up with the person the next day. They ride with a peer support specialist — someone who's battled addiction themselves — to have a conversation about health and recovery.
“We’re making sure that they understand that there’s resources out there for them, that this isn’t the end of the road for them as far as getting into recovery,” Williams said.
Through “Mobile Integrated Healthcare,” the fire department aims to connect residents battling addiction with people and places that can help. Patricia Gutierrez, the alcohol and drug abuse services director at the nonprofit IMPACT, said her office often hears from Milwaukee County residents seeking drug consultation and referrals for treatment after these follow-up visits.
“There’s no pressure,” Gutierrez said. “There’s no judgment. It’s just, ‘How can we help you?’ And I’m very proud that IMPACT can be a part of that.”
IMPACT employees conduct these screenings and assessments in addition to staffing 211, a hotline for residents experiencing personal crises. In the near future, IMPACT will be one of several Milwaukee County agencies with fentanyl test strips available to the public. Gutierrez said in battling the opioid epidemic, stigma reduction is imperative as health departments and community organizations make sure residents know the county has a wide variety of treatment facilities for those ready to begin the recovery process.