'We're not going to arrest our way out of this': Columbia County sees spike in overdoses

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PORTAGE, Wis. - Authorities in Columbia County are investigating what they're calling a spike in overdoses over the past two weeks.

The Sheriff's Office says there were four deaths in a six-day period from August 30th to September 5th, while the Portage Police Department has responded to four overdoses since the start of the month, with one 23-year-old woman dying.

Portage Police Chief Ken Manthey says they believe the recent overdoses are due to heroin being mixed with fentanyl, which makes the drug 50 times stronger and increases the risk of overdose. Manthey says it's also causing police and first responders to use more of the antidote Naloxone, also known as Narcan, to revive people who have overdosed.

"Before, if someone overdosed, usually one dose of Narcan would bring them back around," said Manthey. "Now we're seeing two, three, four or more doses of Narcan to bring those people back around, so it shows how strong this drug is."

The Columbia County Sheriff's Department says their location, with Portage serving as a major Interstate intersection, plays a significant factor in the amount of drugs coming through the area.

"It's more prevalent here because the roads that come through our communities, we're a central hub," said Detective Lt. Rodger Brandner. "We're close to the cities of Milwaukee and Madison and we've seen a huge drug problem in Columbia County for decades. The problem has spiraled into heroin addiction, and that's the main problem right now."

Manthey says law enforcement is being forced into a difficult situation.

"Some people say, 'You shouldn't be locking people up.' I get that, but there's a fine line here," said Manthey. "I've had parents tell me, 'Ken, the only time I can sleep is when my kids are locked up, because otherwise I'm worried they were going to die of an overdose.'"

As an alternative to locking up addicts, Columbia County has set up a drug treatment court. People can apply to be a part of the program, which tries to curb their addictions and may allow them to have a reduced sentence or lesser charge.

The County has also organized an initiative called Prevention and Response Columbia County, or PARCC, to help addicts get the help they need. Out of that effort, a Medication Assisted Treatment Coordinator was hired to help those people access treatment for their addictions.

Those involved with PARCC say it's made a difference in the community, even if there's been a recent uptick in overdoses.

"We have a much larger support network in place than we had three years ago," said PARCC member Tom Drury. "Had it not been for these efforts, you have to ask where we would be. The problem would be worse."

Earlier this week, Columbia County's Health and Human Services board approved some new proposals for more resources to keep those efforts going. Despite the work being done to fight the opioid epidemic, Drury and others involved say they need more support from those above the county level.

"Local and county governments by themselves are not going to have the resources to properly address this problem. We've got to rely on the state and federal government," said Drury.

Columbia County is starting to see some of that help from the state level, recently receiving a $350,000 grant to pay for staff and help recovering addicts stay on track, while also helping the county pay for medication that can curb cravings.

"We're not going to arrest our way out of this," said Chief Manthey. "It's the whole community we need to come together."