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Numbers suggest progress on opioid fight

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Oxycodone pills for a patient with chronic pain.
Oxycodone pain pills prescribed for a patient with chronic pain lie on display in March 2016 in Norwich, Conn.
John Moore | Getty Images 2016

State health officials say new data suggest progress is being made in the opioid epidemic with preliminary numbers released Tuesday showing a significant drop in opioid overdose deaths from 2017 to 2018.

Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm stressed that last year's numbers are still preliminary. The final numbers released this fall will likely increase as death certificates of Minnesotans who died from opioid overdoses in other states are tabulated.

Still, Malcolm said health officials are pleased with what they're seeing.

"This seems to be an indication that Minnesota's attempts to really take a comprehensive approach to this problem clearly seem to be having an effect although we want to be equally clear that one year does not necessarily create a new trend," she said.

According to the preliminary numbers, 134 Minnesotans overdosed and died last year using prescription opioids a 32 percent drop from 2017. Eighty-five people OD'd and died using heroin, a 23 percent drop.

One of Minnesota's foremost drug abuse experts, Carol Falkowski, also sees the early numbers as a positive sign.

"Having monitored drug abuse trends for over three decades, it's very encouraging to see this decline in opioid-related death," said Falkowski, who currently runs a private-sector drug abuse education program.

Falkowski says the trend toward fewer deaths hasn't been seen in the nearly two decades since opioids surpassed cocaine as the leading cause of overdose deaths among Minnesotans.

"This is the first significant decline we have seen in all that time and I think it's related to a number of changes that have [been] made not only in the prescribing practices of prescription opioids but in public awareness and public policy related to the issue," she said.

Naloxone hyrdochloride syringe and box
Naloxone, or Narcan, a drug that counters the effects of opioid overdoses.
Wikimedia Commons

Among the changes in recent years has been more widespread use by first responders and others of Naloxone, a drug that counters the effects of opioid overdoses.

Even as she welcomes the decline in fatal overdoses, Emily Piper, the head of government relations for the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, says this is no time for complacency.

"It's good to finally see it, but there is so much more to do and that's what we want to make sure that public policy makers keep on the forefront of their mind, that we have to address the root issue which is addiction," she said.

Indeed, preliminary numbers clock a slight increase in deaths relates to synthetic opioids. Nearly of the 195 Minnesotans who died from using synthetics last year used illicit versions containing the deadly drug fentanyl.

Colin Planalp, an opioid crisis researcher at the University of Minnesota, underscores that opioid deaths in Minnesota remain at historically high levels. He also warns that even if the numbers from last year hold, that's no guarantee that the opioid crisis is moving toward being contained.

"Around the time that prescription opioids nationally began to level off and decline around 2011, that's when we started seeing large increases in deaths from heroin and synthetic opioids," he said. "So, just because you're seeing a change in the trend for one opioid doesn't mean that's going to hold true for other opioids."

State officials estimate that every day five Minnesotans survive a drug overdose.

Correction (July 9, 2019): An earlier version of this story contained an incorrect first name for Emily Piper.