Deaths related to the highly potent painkiller fentanyl continued to rise in Hennepin County last year, according to preliminary data from the county Medical Examiner’s Office, mirroring a national trend that has public health officials and others worried.
At least 135 people died from fentanyl or fentanyl analog overdoses countywide in 2019 — a tenfold increase from the number that fatally overdosed in 2015, the last year for which reliable data are available. Overall opioid-related deaths ticked up slightly, to 170 last year from 163 in 2018, but were still down from the five-year high of 197 recorded in 2017.
The medical examiner’s office tracks all cases of “likely or suspected accidental, suicidal, homicidal, violent, or mysterious deaths occurring in the county.” Many deaths involve multiple drugs, but the office only recently started systematically tracking such deaths, making comparisons with earlier years problematic, officials say.
Fentanyl deaths outnumbered those from heroin nearly 3-1, the statistics show. The next biggest killer was methamphetamine, whose use has also seen a resurgence in recent years.
The increase comes despite the city’s ongoing efforts to curb the opioid epidemic that for much of the past decade ravaged New England and Appalachia, but until recently had largely spared Minneapolis.
In 2019, the city set a 10-year record in overall drug overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, with more than 1,300 through early December; final figures haven’t been released. That more people aren’t dying is likely thanks to the increased availability of the opioid antidote naloxone, commercially known as Narcan, officials said.
Overall, deaths from drugs and alcohol increased roughly 14%, from 235 in 2018 to 273 in 2019, according to the medical examiner’s statistics.
The uptick in fentanyl overdoses has sent health officials and policymakers, from Washington, D.C., to San Francisco, scrambling for solutions, just as the opioid epidemic appeared to be slowing.
A report released earlier this year by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that drug fatalities in the U.S. declined in 2018 for the first time in nearly three decades, although overdose deaths tied to synthetic opioids like fentanyl continued to rise.
Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey’s 2020 budget sets aside more than $400,000 toward implementing recommendations from a mayoral task force on opioid abuse.
At a Minneapolis health committee meeting last week, officials boasted of the early successes of a pilot program to rid city streets of dirty syringes and other drug paraphernalia. Under the program, 10 collection boxes were installed in drug use hot spots across the city, mostly on the city’s South Side, the latest strategy deployed by health officials to combat the ongoing opioid epidemic.
So far, more than 1,000 used needles have been collected, Noya Woodrich, deputy health commissioner, told the committee.
Libor Jany • 612-673-4064 • Twitter: @StribJany