A record number of people died from opioid-related overdoses last year in Hennepin County, and authorities suspect the 2017 tally will only grow once final counts are made.
Preliminary statistics show that opioids contributed to 162 deaths in the state's most populous county, the Sheriff's Office said. That tops 2016's total of 153, which had surpassed 2015's record of 144. The 2017 number also represents a more than 47 percent increase since 2015.
"This is startling to see an almost 50 percent increase in opioid-related deaths during the past two years," said Sheriff Rich Stanek said in a statement issued Wednesday with the grim figure.
The increase comes as health and law enforcement officials statewide have expanded their efforts to attack opioid addiction.
"The Sheriff's Office will be utilizing all local and federal resources available to us to prevent the illegal supply of drugs from entering our community, and to raise awareness of the public safety and public health epidemic," Stanek's statement continued.
Numerous drugs fall into the highly addictive opioid family, including prescription painkillers such as morphine, methadone, hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl and carfentanil and illegal drugs such as heroin.
In response to 2016's total, the Sheriff's Office in early 2017 began a drug-abuse prevention campaign called #NOverdose. It called for the Sheriff's Office to work with school-parent organizations, other law enforcement agencies, elected officials, businesses and health and community organizations to publicize the dangers of opioids, trends in abuse and overdose prevention.
Stanek said at that time, "We thought increased public awareness, among other things, would make a dent last year. But we just didn't do a good enough job."
On Wednesday, Stanek said his office participated in nearly 130 #NOverdose events in 2017, from speaking to local Rotary meetings to working with the Vikings and Twins to educating State Fair patrons.
"With each event, we realized that many community members were not aware of the dangers that opioids pose and the impacts they have on all families, in every part of the county," he said.
In another initiative, more than two dozen students at the University of Minnesota are leading a new project to reduce improper prescribing of opioids with better training for future doctors. Addiction to opioids often starts with prescribed painkillers.
In December, the Minnesota Department of Human Services rolled out stringent opioid prescribing guidelines, including a plan to track doctors and warn or sanction those who are too liberal with prescriptions.
Last year marked the first time that carfentanil proved fatal in Minnesota, resulting in at least 14 deaths. Some of these deaths have involved carfentanil being added to heroin without the user's knowledge.
Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than the already dangerous fentanyl and cannot yet be detected in routine toxicology tests. It is federally approved to immobilize large animals for surgery, and two salt-sized specks can cause instant death in humans.
The statewide death toll also is rising. A Star Tribune analysis of state death certificate data last year found 402 opioid-related deaths in 2016, up from 344 in 2015.
In recent years, prosecutors across the state have been filing murder charges against dealers who provide opioids to addicts who end up dying.
One defendant, 25-year-old Leah V. Peterson, was in a Carver County courtroom Wednesday for a hearing. She's charged with brokering a drug deal for John M. Hall, who died in January in his Chaska apartment after injecting carfentanil-laced heroin a day before his 27th birthday.
According to 2016 data from the National Center for Health Statistics, drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under age 50. Synthetic drug-related deaths, specifically fentanyl and carfentanil, along with non-opioid drug-related deaths such as cocaine and methamphetamine, have caused a significant increase in annual drug overdose deaths both nationally and locally.