A pair of Carthage College students seeks to help a local health agency and others make a difference in pinpointing Kenosha County’s areas of concentrated opioid overdose deaths and hospital encounters along with treatment locations with the ultimate goal of preventing the drug-induced fatalities.

Geospatial Science Associate Professor Wenjie Sun, said her students — juniors Zak Schwartz, 21, of Kenosha, and Olivia Pratt, 20, of Waterloo — have been working since February on a project to produce detailed “heat maps” in Sun’s applied geographic information science class. The maps draw from state data detailing the number of overdose deaths and reported drug overdose encounters at hospitals.

They also applied compiled county-level data that show sites where training for the use of Narcan, a nasal spray applied in opioid emergencies or overdoses used to revive patients, are located or have been held.

The maps are part of the class’ service learning projects in which Schwartz and Pratt have partnered with the Kenosha County Division of Health.

According to Sun, her classes have been involved in community-based projects for the last seven or eight years. During that time, they’ve worked with diverse local partner organizations in the county and the cities of Kenosha and Racine. They’ve also partnered with a number of nonprofit groups and small businesses and even others out of state.

The mapping project idea came about through the college’s former civic engagement director’s connection with the local health department. Sun said in meeting with a health department representative they were to outline the department’s GIS needs. The college is also a Narcan training site.

According to Sun, the maps that are being presented to the county will be used in a way that allows them to evaluate the “big picture” of how it fits in relation to others statewide.They will also give the Division of Health a tool that can be used to assess where it needs to allocate more resources toward preventative measures in areas of high risk.

Using the state Department of Health Service's Wisconsin Interactive Statistics on Health data found online, the students said they have been able to create maps that allow the user to visualize where the greatest concentrations of opioid overdoses have been occurring over the last 18 years. The interactive maps, when completed, will also allow its users to track demographic data for race/ethnicity, gender and age groups, enabling them to see where certain disparities occur.

Overdose deaths

Pratt, who has been picking apart the data for overdose deaths in all 72 counties, said she has found that “deaths have definitely been increasing as the years go by.” Over the 18-year period, all but four counties registered overdoses leading to deaths, she said.

According to county data compiled and released in 2017, the county ranked first out of the state’s 72 counties for heroin-related deaths, fourth for opiate-related deaths, first for hospital encounters involving heroin and 14th for hospital encounters involving opiates, according to the state Department of Health Services. Heroin-related deaths in the county increased 388 percent from 2009-2016 compared with the previous eight-year period beginning in 2000.

The students are turning in their maps to be reviewed by their instructor next week and are scheduled to present their findings to county health officials on April 24. Counties with the greatest numbers of heroin deaths include Milwaukee, Dane, Racine and Kenosha.

“Milwaukee is by far the biggest. Kenosha is a big one. On our maps, the way it’s symbolized, the bigger the circles, the more deaths there are,” said Pratt, who is studying geographic information science and environmental science.

Opioid encounters at hospitals

For his part, Schwartz examined hospital encounters, which include suspected overdoses for all counties over time. He also created Kenosha County’s heat map indicating where Narcan training centers are located.

“I think our main goal for this project was to showcase a temporal change for all the counties in Wisconsin. Showing rapid increase of people being admitted to hospitals and growth in counties of people affected by opioids,” he said. “We wanted to show a spatial relevance on a map to help people to understand and visualize that this happening in your area.”

Schwarz, who is studying geoscience and geographic information science, said the map provides high and low numbers for counties over the years.

“So, you can see, basically, the counties increase in total number of people being admitted to a hospital,” he said.

He said that in examining the data, Kenosha has seen growth in the numbers of people being admitted to hospitals for opioid use. Like Pratt’s maps, Schwartz’s show similar types of increases, especially among the state’s largest counties. The increases are also more noticeable in southern Wisconsin counties nearest to the Illinois border.

While Schwartz said he’s never known anyone personally who has died of an overdose, his father, who works in law enforcement, has had experience with it.

“I’ve had friends who’ve known people affected by opioids,” he said.

He said the real-world applications are exciting and can serve as an introduction “potentially with what we might be dealing with out of college.”

“These are different scenarios that affect many different lives,” he said.