Updated: 6:45 p.m. | Posted: 5:20 p.m.
The number of Minnesotans who died from opioid overdoses continued to rise last year, according to new data from the Minnesota Department of Health. Opioid overdoses, alone took the lives of 376 people in the state in 2016, an increase of 12 percent. That's over half of drug overdose deaths overall.
The number of people dying of opioid overdoses has been rising steadily across the country for the last decade and a half. Minnesota's Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said the number of people dying of drug overdoses in the state has increased six-fold since the year 2000.
"This means that on an average day, nearly two people died in Minnesota from drug overdose in 2016, more Minnesotans die from overdose than from traffic fatalities," Ehlinger said. "This is the continuation of an alarming trend."
Using preliminary data from Minnesota death certificates, the health department said 637 people died from a drug overdose in 2016 compared to 583 deaths in 2015.
• Full coverage: Minnesota's opioid epidemic
At least 376 people died of opioid overdose deaths in Minnesota in 2016. Half of the state's opioid overdose deaths were caused by prescription opioids like oxycodone.
"The truth is that most people do not start taking pills to get high, instead they're trying to relieve pain, suffering and trauma," Ehlinger said. "We see that throughout our state."
Officials say there's some evidence that doctors and others are changing how they prescribe opioids. Although about 3.5 million opioid prescriptions were issued in the state last year, the total amount of opioids prescribed was down eight percent last year.
And in July a law went into effect that requires prescribers to register an account with the Minnesota Prescription Monitoring Program, although prescribers still aren't required to check in with the program.
While there are some positive developments, Department of Health epidemiologist Jon Roesler said racial gaps in rates of overdose deaths have continued to widen.
"The burden of this drug overdose epidemic is not borne equally throughout all populations in Minnesota," Roesler said.
American Indians are six times more likely to die of an overdose than white Minnesotans, while African-Americans are twice as likely to die over overdoses as whites. While overdose death rates for whites in the state are among the lowest in the country, Roesler said, the rate of death for American Indians was among the highest.
Dr. Kari Rabie, of the Native American Community Clinic in Minneapolis, said her clinic has completely revamped how to treat opioid addiction in the last five years. Doctors at her clinic now work under strict guidelines about when to prescribe opioids, and how to treat addiction or patients seeking opioids.
"We have patients with substance use disorder entering treatment, and we have patients that have maintained their recovery," Rabie said. "We are constantly feeling the positive effects of improved connections to our patients, our families and our community."
Across the state, overdoses that involved synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, which is blamed for Prince's death, rose 80 percent. Roesler said nationwide studies are showing that heroin is increasingly laced with synthetic opioids like fentanyl. But that many medical examiners in the past have not necessarily tested specifically for fentanyl during autopsies.
"Just because somebody on board when they die, it doesn't necessarily mean it makes it to the death certificate," Roesler said. "We've got a couple of data collection efforts that underway right now."
The state is trying different ways to reduce overdose deaths. One initiative aims to give more people access to naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose. The Minnesota Department of Health has also launched an opioid dashboard, which contains data about the state's opioid epidemic, as well as resources for treatment and prevention.