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La Crosse Co. overdose deaths increase during pandemic

Published: Jun. 26, 2020 at 6:12 PM CDT
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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WEAU) -

While some local health experts thought the COVID-19 pandemic would bring a decrease in drug use, data from Gundersen Health System is showing the opposite.

In fact, overdose deaths in La Crosse County are up this year.

“As of May 27th... we had 18 confirmed [overdose deaths] and in perspective we had a total of 22 all of last year,” said Dr. Chris Eberlein, a Gundersen emergency medicine physician.

Eberlein says there are most likely two to three more overdose deaths pending.

One reason for the increase is thought to be the lack of social interaction during the pandemic.

“We always say the opposite of addiction is connection and so we know that the isolation that our folks have had to endure has had a negative impact,” said Cheryl Hancock, the executive director of the Coulee Recovery Center.

The Coulee Recovery Center says those in the earlier stages of the recovery process weren’t as comfortable with virtual meetings.

Additionally, fear of going to the hospital due to COVID-19 exposure has played a role.

“Patients were reluctant to come in for care for awhile and I think that has affected mental health as well,” Eberlein said.

While elective surgeries were postponed, Gundersen Health System says prescription opioid use increased as a way to help treat those patients waiting for surgery.

“I had a friend who had knee surgery that kept getting delayed and what are you going to do? Are you going to have them suffer or are you going to treat their pain? That is another side effect of COVID-19,” Eberlein explained.

Treatment for a substance use disorder starts with an assessment which helps decide the right avenue for each patient.

Options include counseling, recovery coaches, intensive outpatient, hospitalization, residential and the relatively new Medically Assisted Treatment (MAT) which uses medication like methadone.

Experts say the treatment is similar to someone who’s diabetic getting insulin.

“What it does is helps with the urges, the physical urges, that too many times people not involved will say ‘Oh just stop. You can stop’ and the reality is that those physical urges become emotional and mental health urges,” Hancock added.

Doctors say they hope to erase the stigma surrounding addiction.

“Substance use disorder crosses over to all walks of life, all people, all different income levels, all neighborhoods--it’s there,” Hancock said.

Those struggling with an addiction are encouraged to speak with a primary physician, call the Coulee Recovery Center at 608-784-4177, or go to the emergency room if in crisis.

Copyright 2020 WEAU. All rights reserved.

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