DULUTH – A record 19 people have died from opioid overdoses in Duluth this year, and nonfatal opioid overdoses jumped to 183 — an average of one every other day.

The Duluth Police Department is working to make sure that's as high as those numbers ever get.

As police forces across the country face growing pressures to invest in partnerships that proactively address issues such as addiction and mental health, Duluth received a nearly $900,000 grant to create the Lake Superior Diversion and Substance Use Response Team. That money will fund the hiring of a second peer recovery specialist and a licensed drug and alcohol counselor to provide fast treatment referrals.

"The fact that we're going to have outreach to more people means we'll have the ability to remove more people out of that pool of addiction," said Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force, who said 27 people have died of drug overdoses across the region this year. "The drugs are coming here because there are people here to use them."

The department has been shifting its efforts toward reducing demand for drugs like heroin, fentanyl and prescription painkillers. Police now take a "three-pronged approach" that includes cracking down on drug sales, education on addiction issues and connecting users to recovery resources.

Jess Nickila joined the Duluth Police Department in 2018 as an opioid response technician and has helped dozens of people enter treatment; she has a caseload of more than 100 people.

"To be able to expand the reach of the hard work she is doing, we will save and renew lives while at the same time limiting the demand for opioids in our community," Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said in a statement.

The three-year federal grant will also allow the department to focus on meth, which has grown increasingly deadly in the region.

The grant will help reach an additional 20 to 30 people per year and get folks into treatment faster.

"There's only so many phone calls I can make in one day," said Nickila, whose efforts have been hampered by the pandemic. "We have a disproportionate problem here in our area, so we need a disproportionate solution."

Many feared the pandemic would increase isolation and trigger relapses or otherwise drive demand for drugs. Kazel said the pandemic "has hurt us" as overdoses surge.

"If we didn't have the programming, and the people working on this problem right now, that number could be double," he said. "Law enforcement traditionally used jail and prison as the means of taking care of problems. We have been very successful in showing there are other tools we can use to help the community and change things around."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496

Katie Galioto • 612-673-4478