Last year, 153 people in Hennepin County died of opioid-related deaths, compared with 110 in 2015 — a 39 percent increase, according to updated numbers released Friday by the Sheriff's Office.
The final 2016 tally, a record, was announced at the first #NOverdose coalition meeting — an initiative to combat the opioid epidemic — held Thursday. The group will meet monthly to get updates on overdose prevention and fatal overdoses, as well as feedback from town-hall-style meetings. Many of those meetings will be held in schools.
"Every one of the 153 deaths was tragic and every one was preventable," Sheriff Rich Stanek said in a statement. "In response to this crisis, we will work together to build strong partnerships to reduce the number of opioid-related deaths."
At a February news conference announcing the initiative, Stanek said 144 people died last year of opioid-related overdoses. He said that although officers and paramedics saved many lives by administering the anti-overdose drug naloxone, first responders alone can't stem the tide.
"We thought increased public awareness, among other things, would make a dent last year," he said at a February news conference. "But we just didn't do a good enough job."
Colleen Ronnei, whose son Luke died of an overdose last year, said the updated numbers showing more overdose deaths are "saddening." She called the coalition a "valiant" and "remarkable" effort and said she hopes the campaign will be effective.
"It's really frustrating for me, as a parent directly affected, knowing that another 153 families are going through the same agony," said Ronnei, who is involved with the campaign but did not attend Thursday's meeting. Luke, 20, of Chanhassen, in Carver County, was not included in the Hennepin County tally.
Thursday's discussion addressed recommendations for educating youth and parents, new ideas for prevention messaging and several ways for coalition members to get involved, according to a statement from the Sheriff's Office.
Carol Falkowski, former director of the alcohol and drug abuse division at the state Department of Human Services and now with the private Drug Abuse Dialogues, called the #NOverdose campaign a "step in the right direction."
"This focuses on prevention, and I believe it is absolutely where we need to focus more attention in this state," Falkowski said. "Many other states and communities have had effective and visible prevention campaigns, and this is the first one we have yet to see in the state of Minnesota, and I think it's overdue."
There is also a major focus on education for parents, with several events planned at Hennepin County high schools, including one to be held at Wayzata High School at 7 p.m. March 20.
The key to effective prevention, Falkowski added, is that the "same message must be delivered by multiple messengers" in families, schools and communities.
"It has to be this continuing dialogue," she said. "If you ask kids if their parents talk to them about drugs, they'll say no, and if you ask parents if they've talked to their kids, they say yes they have. There's definitely a lot of disconnect."
Said Ronnei: "How do we scare the hell out of people? People don't grasp that one use can change their lives."