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COVID-19 pandemic intensifying opioid crisis

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LA CROSSE, Wis. (WXOW) - During a media briefing on Tuesday, two health officials from Mayo Clinic Health System looked at how COVID-19 has intensified a problem that existed before the pandemic arrived: The opioid crisis.

In August, News 19 reported that overdose deaths have already doubled in La Crosse County from 2019. 27 people have died so far in 2020. 16 of those deaths are attributed to the opioid fentanyl, a legitimate drug in treating pain. However, more and more people are obtaining it illicitly and mixing it into other drugs.

"We need to work faster, because in 40 states at least, the rates of overdose deaths are increased during COVID-19 and steadily increasing," said Dr. Halena Gazelka M.D., who specializes in pain management and anesthesiology at Mayo Clinic Health System.

Dr. Gazelka said the economic downturn, isolationism, and drug supply appear to be the main driving force behind more opioid overdose deaths.

The Mayo Clinic Health System doctor added that the shifting of resources toward the pandemic has also helped grow addiction and even death statistics due to backlogs in procedures that often help wean people off of opioids and lead them toward other methods to reducing pain.

"We were not having as much time with our patients and patients with legitimate pain concerns had a difficult time obtaining their medications," said Dr. Gazelka.

To help reverse this trend, health experts believe proactive approaches must become a priority to help meet people before they end up in the emergency room.

"It's everything from education to people who have never had an opioid yet to providing medically assisted therapy for patients with opioid use disorder," said Dr. Gazelka.

In La Crosse County, that means improving the overall system starting with the correct allocation of resources for those working on the frontlines of addiction.

"It's not so much increased staff capacity as it is to how it's coordinated and where it's moved to and taken to help those with substance use disorders and mental health concerns," said Al Bliss from Alliance to HEAL.

Bliss added that funding for resources like computers and plexiglass also needs to be there to help professionals follow up with their patients and provide that treatment.

One proactive approach that residents in the county are seeing take effect this month is the distribution NARCAN kits by Gundersen's Tri-State Ambulance.

The health care provider became the first in Wisconsin to have their ambulances carry these lifesaving kits that also contain information on how to get help.

Both Bliss and Dr. Gazelka also spoke about the importance of telemedicine and how the tool has become critical in helping patients treat their pain or addiction.

For resources on avoiding addiction or receiving help for addiction, visit

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