Drug overdose deaths rose sharply in Minnesota last year, extending more than a decade of increases and leaving the death tally nearly six times higher than it was in 2000.
The number of deaths hit 637 last year, up from 583 the year before.
“This is … an alarming trend,” said Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger, who noted that the addictive properties of drugs can be deadly for the “diseases of despair,” such as chronic pain, depression, chemical dependency and suicide.
Ehlinger said that two Minnesotans, on average, die each day from drug abuse. Drug overdoses now kill more Minnesotans each year than traffic accidents.
The department released the numbers Thursday as it unveiled a new “Opioid Dashboard,” a webpage containing data on drug overdose deaths, nonfatal overdoses, opioid use, prescribing practices and other information.
Developed using a $345,000 grant from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, it will serve as a central clearinghouse for policymakers as well as the public to focus resources, monitor trends and guide prevention efforts.
Fueling the rise in deaths has been a marked increase in the supply and abuse of opioid drugs, a class of medications known for their ability to reduce pain and, in some patients, induce a sense of euphoria. Nearly 60 percent of all drug-related deaths last year were related to opioid use.
While opioids include illegal drugs like heroin, which took a rising toll in the Twin Cities, prescription drugs like oxycodone and hydrocodone continue to account for the greatest number of opioid deaths.
Health and law enforcement officials are also closely watching the spread of powerful synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, that can be fatal at low doses. They accounted for 96 deaths last year — an 80 percent jump from the previous year.
Other drugs are also contributing to the problem, including a resurgence of methamphetamine use in rural Minnesota that has caused a spike in deaths.
The steady rise in drug overdoses has prompted a search for solutions by government, private industry and the medical profession, which has sought in recent years to develop new approaches to prescribing addictive medicines.
Those efforts seem to be working. The dashboard data shows that the total volume of opioids sold in Minnesota declined in 2016, continuing a trend that began in 2014.
At some primary care clinics, like the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis, doctors no longer routinely prescribe opioids for chronic pain.
Dr. Kari Rabie, a family medicine physician and the clinic’s medical director, tells her patients that although the pain pills can provide some short-term relief, they aren’t effective in the long run.
“If you are still taking them in three months, in five years you are likely to still be taking them and you will still have the pain,” said Rabie. Long-term drug use is also likely to cause physical disabilities, depression and other side effects, she said.
Instead, the clinic tries to help patients solve underlying challenges, which can include trauma, mental health problems and abuse. Patients are given the choice to decide how and when to address addiction, ranging from harm reduction techniques to complete drug rehabilitation.
“We hope to create a place where our patients can heal,” Rabie said. “If they can come back to fight another day, that is a success.”
Some patients are given the option to take buprenorphine, which can help ease withdrawal cravings, although physicians need special training to safely administer and monitor the drug.
The death rate from drug abuse for American Indians in Minnesota is six times higher than for whites — one of the highest disparities in the country. And it has gotten worse; a few years ago, Minnesotans in the Indian community were dying from drug causes at a rate four times higher than the white population.
Black Minnesotans die from drug overdoses at about twice the rate of whites.
“Minnesota must not tolerate this pattern any more,” said Ehlinger.