DULUTH – Before the pandemic brought a new kind of death to town, fentanyl-laced heroin and meth was wreaking havoc on the city.

The first quarter was one of the deadliest on record — tied with the first three months of last year, said Jess Nickila, the city's opioid technician, who works to get survivors into treatment. "The biggest concern for me is the number of overdoses, and it's wild how many we're having."

Isolation caused by the state's lockdown may be increasing demand for drugs, and the pandemic has done little to slow the supply, which could keep Duluth on track to have its deadliest year yet in terms of overdoses.

"We know trafficking is going on, and there has been an uptick in overdoses," said Duluth police Lt. Jeff Kazel, commander of the Lake Superior Drug and Violent Crime Task Force. "It's an emergency for everybody and we're holding our own and doing what needs to be done."

Cartels and other criminal enterprises have increasingly flooded Duluth with opioids and other drugs in recent years — leading the federal Drug Enforcement Agency to post two agents in Duluth last fall.

Duluth police recently seized 64 grams of cocaine believed to be laced with the very deadly fentanyl. Kazel said the potent opioid is finding its way into heroin and meth and is often to blame for an increase in overdoses when laced shipments come into town.

There have been 90 reported overdoses in Duluth so far this year compared with 174 in all of 2019. As of last week 10 people have died in Duluth from overdoses; 15 died all of last year.

"Every one of those numbers is a human being and a human life," Duluth Police Chief Mike Tusken said earlier this month.

Nickila joined the Duluth Police Department in 2018 and has helped dozens of residents find their way to treatment. But with COVID-19 restrictions, she has gone from responding to the scene of an overdose or the hospital afterward to "someone calling out of the blue — 'Hey, I'm Jess and I'm here to help.' "

"The job has changed completely," she said. "I can't go out and meet anyone face to face — which is the most effective way to reach people, build rapport and get them to trust me enough to accept help."

More troubling is the amount of new names she's encountering, "people I have no prior experience with — which makes it harder to do that initial outreach."

The Police Department is applying for grants to give her backup and expand its efforts to get addicts into treatment and curb the demand for drugs. St. Louis County is also applying for up to $1.3 million in state money to treat and prevent opioid addiction.

There have been 16 overdose-related deaths in St. Louis County so far this year.

The number of ODs per month has swung from 13 in January to 25 in February, back down to 13 in March and up again to 22 in April.

Though the spike in overdose deaths came before the pandemic hit the region, the state's lockdown could have unintended consequences for those at risk of relapse.

"Addiction thrives in isolation," Kazel said. "You can see the isolation is definitely affecting our community with mental health issues, with substance abuse issues, with domestic issues — it really takes a toll on people."

Nickila said she's thankful that treatment options remain open during the pandemic and many have been able to find the help they need.

"Even if I can't personally bring people there, we still have this fantastic option in the city," she said, referring to the Center for Alcohol and Drug Treatment.

The Duluth Police Department has an opioid hotline, 218-730-4009, to help get people connected to treatment.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496