The number of deaths attributed to alcohol has been on the rise in Minnesota for years, and last year's toll shows a link to the COVID-19 pandemic, state health officials said Thursday.

An alarming 992 people died from alcohol-related causes last year — up 171 from 2019, according to a report from the Minnesota Department of Health.

While alcohol-related deaths have been steadily increasing since 2000, health officials say the pandemic contributed to the most recent rise.

Early studies suggest that alcohol consumption has increased during the pandemic, said Traci Toomey, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. Isolation and loneliness are likely factors among many, she said.

"This is in the context of a pandemic where many of us are experiencing a range of challenges — from working at home or in public and facing that threat of contracting the virus — to lockdowns and social isolation," she said. "There are so many different stressors that are on us that are new or worse."

Deaths from alcohol use in 2020 were similar in numbers to recent years — until June. That's when the rate started to accelerate, according to the report.

Overall, deaths have increased nearly threefold since 2000, when the state recorded 317. In 2015, there were nearly 600 deaths related to alcohol.

About 95% of the 2020 death toll consisted of people with chronic ailments such as liver disease that developed over years of excessive drinking, according to the report.

The count does not include deaths that were partly attributed to alcohol and may not capture the full impact the pandemic has had in increasing alcohol consumption.

"The deaths of so many Minnesotans from alcohol is tragic and preventable," state Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm said in a news release.

"In response, we need to strengthen overall opportunities in our communities for connectedness and financial security as well as specific evidence-based community strategies to reduce excessive alcohol use."

Excessive use of alcohol can lead to myriad other problems, such as traffic crashes, domestic violence and trouble in school, Toomey said.

The pandemic may have caused light and moderate drinkers to consume more alcohol, especially after Minnesota allowed beer and wine sales with takeout orders to offset the economic effects restaurants were feeling, according to Toomey.

The temporary changes remain in effect. Toomey said she hopes they don't stay in place after the pandemic ebbs in Minnesota.

"In my line of work, we're often concerned about the changes that might increase availability of alcohol or change the way alcohol is available, and that may change consumption patterns," Toomey said.

"If they drink more or in different ways, that can increase the likelihood of a range of alcohol problems as well."

Alex Chhith • 612-673-4759