Deaths tied to heroin or prescription opiates in Hennepin County fell more than 20 percent last year while they rose slightly in Ramsey County, data released Monday show.
Hennepin County saw deaths fall to 102 in 2014, significantly better than the 132 deaths recorded in 2013, said Carol Falkowski, an expert on Minnesota drug trends who analyzed the data.
Officials say the county's efforts to get the anti-overdose drug naloxone in the hands of first responders may have made a difference.
A law that took effect last year made naloxone, also known as Narcan, more widely available to law enforcement and lay people. Hennepin County officials distributed it to emergency personnel, which may have contributed to the county's lower opiate deaths, said Falkowski, former director of the Minnesota Department of Human Services' alcohol and drug abuse division.
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Health workers in Hennepin County have been working throughout 2014 to get naloxone into the hands of those at high risk for an overdose, said Adam Fairbanks, who coordinates a statewide naloxone distribution program through Twin Cities-based treatment center Valhalla Place.
Clinic workers have been prescribing and training users about naloxone for most of 2014 at Valhalla's Brooklyn Park clinic. Last summer they started offering clinic-based access to an anti-overdose kit.
"People give it to the people who need it," Fairbanks said. "We have patients in our clinics who will purchase naloxone and they will give it to their friends who are high risk, who are still using."
Fairbanks' center has partnered with groups like the Minnesota AIDS Project in Minneapolis to distribute naloxone in the region. An extensive street-based program that distributes naloxone directly to drug users in Minneapolis could also be responsible for the drop in overdose deaths, Fairbanks said.
Hennepin County Sheriff Rich Stanek was among the naloxone bill's strongest supporters.
Stanek said years of rising opiate overdose deaths spurred the department to broaden its approach.
"We focused several years ago on three key parts: prevention, intervention and the enforcement side," Stanek said. "The enforcement side was easy — prevention and intervention was a little more time consuming."
Since shifting focus, the Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has partnered with schools, community groups, treatment centers like Hazelden and local law enforcement agencies to educate the public about opiate abuse and naloxone in a number of local forums across the county.
The next forum is focused on drug abuse in the American Indian community and is scheduled for May 28 in south Minneapolis.
In addition to the traditional enforcement efforts, Stanek said the department has disrupted the black market supply of opiates through a prescription drug collection program, which took in 21 tons of prescription drugs in the last two years.
Following the passage of the bill expanding access to naloxone, Stanek was the state's first law enforcement leader to outfit law enforcement officers with the anti-overdose drug. So far, there's been only one confirmed overdose reversal by a Hennepin County deputy, but Stanek said the publicity generated by the move appears to have increased awareness of the antidote.
Ramsey County saw opiate-related deaths rise slightly from 37 in 2013 to 42 in 2014, according to Falkowski's report.
Although Ramsey County Sheriff Matt Bostrom supported the law to expand access to naloxone, he's decided not to outfit deputies with the overdose antidote.
"After consulting with our medical emergency and fire department partners, who share the responsibility of providing services to our patrol areas, we feel confident that their response is the best means to render aid to individuals suffering from a heroin overdose," said a statement from the Ramsey County Sheriff's Office.
The department declined further comment on the report's findings.
The opiate overdose epidemic is far from over in either county. About a quarter of patients admitted to treatment programs in the county were seeking treatment for heroin or prescription opiates.
The Twin Cities are also seeing increased treatment rates for methamphetamines, which increased to 11.8 percent of total treatment program admissions last year. Falkowski said treatment admissions for methamphetamines are just under where they were during the meth epidemic of the mid-2000s.
"Every drug epidemic is a combination of supply and demand," Falkowski said. "With methamphetamine, all conditions are ripe for a growing epidemic."
Law enforcement also reports seizing growing amounts of methamphetamines in the Twin Cities over the last three years.
"The big take-home message here is that meth is back with a resurgence," Falkowski said, "and heroin and painkillers still retain their grip."