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Overdoses on the Rise: Pandemic Fuels Substance Abuse Issues in the Northwoods

Fentanyl pills.

It’s been a hard year and a half for a lot of people.

The COVID-19 pandemic has meant high stress and fewer healthy outlets for that stress.

During those stretches of hopelessness, there are some that turned to drugs and alcohol.

“We come out of one pandemic and go right into another one,” said John D. Johnson Sr., President of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians.

He said drug overdoses are taking their toll on the community.

“The hardest drugs we were seeing so far was the fentanyl. It’s just growing. All the way across the United States and the Northwoods and this is what we’re seeing,” said Johnson.

Johnson and Lac du Flambeau Police Chief TJ Bill point to fentanyl as the biggest driver of the overdoses they’ve seen in the last year and a half.

Increases in Overdoses

Bill said fentanyl has flooded the illegal market. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid and can used in meth and heroin or on its own.

“It’s very addicting. The first time you use it it’s very addicting. Once you get addicted to that opioid it’s hard to stop,” said Bill. “That’s where the suppliers will continue to flood the community with that drug based on the addictions as far as wanting more of it.”

Lac du Flambeau has seen a sharp increase in overdoses.

Bill shared some statistics for the last few years of the number of drug overdoses that the police department has responded to.

Going back to 2018, police were called to five overdoses and then four overdoses the next year.

In 2020, that number doubled to eight.

So far this year, the police department has responded to 16 overdoses. 12 of which were related fentanyl use.

It’s not just the number of overdoses that’s increasing, it’s also the severity of them.

“It’s a very deadly drug.  On average when we have these overdoses, we’re providing four to six dosages of Narcan to these individuals which is a four-milligram nasal spray. In that past, that was unheard of,” said Bill.

As much as the Lac du Flambeau community is struggling with this problem right now, President Johnson knows they’re not alone.

“This is not just a native issue. It’s all over. It’s all around our reservation and it’s all running rampant through the Northwoods,” said Johnson.

Not Just Lac du Flambeau

A record number of Americans died from drug overdoses last year.

Preliminary data for Wisconsin shows more than 1,200 people died of opioid overdoses last year. That’s up from 916 deaths in 2019.

“I don’t have direct data saying, ‘this death was due to this substance’ but I can tell you that we are seeing all of those substances in the northcentral area. In fact, really have had much more methamphetamine in the last year and a half or so than we had seen previously,” said Sheila Weix, Director of Substance Abuse Services for Marshfield Clinic’s Family Health Center.

She’s been seeing what Lac du Flambeau is experiencing all across north central Wisconsin. It’s not just illegal substances she’s concerned about, alcohol abuse is up as well.

“All of the substances seem to be at a much higher level now than what they were pre-pandemic,” said Weix

Weix said the COVID-19 pandemic was a perfect storm for substance abuse.

“A person is more at risk of either returning to use or increasing use if you’re hungry, angry, lonely, or tired,” she said. “Well, there was a whole lot of time during the pandemic where all four of those things may have applied. I think people were really set up for increased use.”

Other things like lack of in person recovery meetings, increase in the drug supply, lack of a job or other social norm controls also played a role in the increased abuse.

Johnson believes the mental health toll and lack of socialization are the biggest stressors in his community.

“We like to socialize a lot as Native Americans. We’ve got to get back into that. We’re hoping this pandemic doesn’t come back again with that Delta variant so that we can start getting back in touch with our people,” said Johnson.

What Can Be Done

Johnson hopes that with the return of events and community dinners, people will start using less.

Weix agrees that as things start to return to normal and in-person recovery meetings resume, some of the abuse will start to go down.

In addition to that, the police chief wants to see the dealers he and his officers arrest to face consequences.

He said they’ll arrest someone only for them to get out of jail on a signature bond and go right back to selling drugs.

“They repeatedly continue selling. We try to get them again, arrest them. It’s a vicious cycle. We have individuals here in our community have been arrested five, six, seven times for similar crimes. There’s no accountability for this,” said Bill.

Weix, Johnson, and Bill all agree that this issue needs to be attack at all levels.

“We’re going through these other tribes. We’re going to pass some resolutions, do what we can, and go down state and help fight the fight along side our partners in the state also. It’s got to be done. It’s going to take some time to heal, but I hope we have the time to do it,” said Johnson.

And sometimes hope is enough.

“There is hope. As long as a person draws breath they can get into recovery. While it may be very difficult today, do hang in there. This will get better and there is help available to get there,” said Weix.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are resources available.

Family Health Center provides substance abuse services for people addressing alcohol and other drug abuse.

Ladysmith Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center

1000 W. College Ave.
P.O. Box 40
Ladysmith, WI 54848
Phone: 715-532-2373

Marshfield Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center

214 W. Second Street 
Marshfield, WI 54449
Phone: 715-221-5714

Minocqua Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center

9792 Highway 70 West 
Minocqua, WI 54548
Phone: 715-358-7377

The Family Health Center also works within the HOPE Consortium:


Forest County Potawatomi AODA Services, Crandon
Monday – Friday, 9:00 am – 5:00 pm
Ph. 715-478-4332
5519 Wej Mo Gek Court
Crandon, WI 54520

*Sokaogon Chippewa Community Health Clinic, Crandon
Tuesday – Friday, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Ph. 715-478-5180
3144 VanZile Road
Crandon, WI 54520

The Human Service Center-Forest, Oneida and Vilas Counties, Rhinelander
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
Ph. 715-369-2215
24hr Crisis Line: 888-299-1188
705 East Timber Drive
Rhinelander, WI 54501


Iron County Human Services, Hurley
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:00 pm
Ph. 715-561-3636
300 Taconite Street
Hurley, WI 54534


Price County Health and Human Services, Phillips
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
Ph. 715-339-2158
104 South Eyder Avenue
Phillips, WI 54555


*Family Health Center of Marshfield, Inc.-Alcohol & Drug Recovery Center, Minocqua
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 5:00 pm
Ph. 715-358-7377
9792 Highway 70 West
Minocqua, WI 54548

The Human Service Center-Forest, Oneida and Vilas Counties, Rhinelander
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
Ph. 715-369-2215
24hr Crisis Line: 888-299-1188
705 East Timber Drive
Rhinelander, WI 54501

Options Counseling Services/Koinonia Residential Treatment Center, Rhinelander
Monday – Friday
Ph. 715-369-7300 (Options Counseling)
Ph. 715-362-5754 (Koinonia Residential)
1991 East Winnebago Street
Rhinelander, WI 54501


The Human Service Center-Forest, Oneida and Vilas Counties, Rhinelander
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
Ph. 715-369-2215
24hr Crisis Line: 888-299-1188
705 East Timber Drive
Rhinelander, WI 54501

*Lac du Flambeau Chippewa Family Resource Center, Lac du Flambeau
Monday – Friday, 8:00 am – 4:30 pm
Ph. 715-588-1511
533 Peace Pipe Road
Lac du Flambeau, WI 545538

*Indicates Medication-Assisted Treatment Providers (MAT)

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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