Minneapolis police are on pace to respond to a record number of suspected drug overdoses compared with last year, according to department projections.
Officers have encountered 210 suspected drug overdoses as of February's end, with early department projections showing the city on a pace to easily top last year's tally of 954 calls. Nineteen happened this week alone.
If the current pace keeps up, department officials predict the city will end with more than 1,300 overdose calls by the end the year, eclipsing 2018 by nearly 40 percent.
Officials cautioned against reading too much into the numbers, saying that it's too soon to tell whether they are part of a long-term trend or just a blip.
"That's a projection; there are many things that could change in the rest of the year," said city Health Commissioner Gretchen Musicant, while adding that the cause of the recent spikes was not yet clear. The results of two other studies on the city's overdose epidemic are expected, she added.
Among the calls, 38 were to the Navigation Center, a temporary shelter near the Franklin Avenue light-rail station that shelters homeless people transitioning to permanent housing. Many of its residents were moved from an outdoor homeless encampment that sprang up along Franklin and Hiawatha avenues last year, where drug use was prevalent and at least four people died from overdoses. "It's disruptive for people to move from one setting to another," Musicant said of the rash of Navigation Center overdoses. "I believe that the systems that we'd like to see in place are moving in the right direction, but I think just that general disruption that occurs with a move can precipitate an uneasiness that might lead to accelerating what's happened."
Paramedics have used Narcan 160 times since Jan. 1 to treat suspected overdose victims, after using the opioid antidote 832 times all of last year, according to Mike Trullinger, battalion chief for Hennepin EMS.
"You can go from the mansions out in Minnetonka to downtown Minneapolis. Opioid overdoses don't know boundaries — you would be amazed," Trullinger said Thursday.
So far this year, officers have administered the overdose-reversal drug 11 times, a police department spokesman said.
In a brief statement released Thursday, spokesman John Elder said the overdoses are part of a national epidemic, which the department is working "with our public safety partners and medical professionals to find ways to attempt to address."
While the opioid epidemic sweeping through the Rust Belt and Appalachia has largely spared Minneapolis, parts of the city have been hit hard by heroin and prescription drug abuse.
In response, authorities in Minneapolis as elsewhere have taken to assigning homicide detectives to investigate fatal overdoses as they would any other unnatural death, while prosecutors are aggressively going after drug dealers who sell to people who die.
And while researchers say that the number of opioid-related deaths appears to be plateauing, a report released by the National Safety Council earlier this year found that Americans were, for the first time, more likely to die of an opioid overdose than in a car crash.
Less clear was how the drug crisis was playing out across the river, where St. Paul fire officials said statistics were not immediately available.
Patina Park, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center, said she wasn't entirely surprised by the recent rash of overdoses in the city given a shortage of treatment resources, particularly at the Navigation Center, which is expected to close in May.
Park says she has heard from street outreach workers about a rise in overdoses from a new bath salt-style drug.
"On the street it looks like what's on the bottom of the fish tank, so they call it 'gravel,' " said Park.
A message left for the city's fire department, whose firefighters also carry Narcan, wasn't immediately returned. An e-mail to the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's Office, the final authority on a person's cause and manner of death, went unreturned Thursday.