The city of St. Paul has seen a concerning spike in overdoses in the past week and police say uncovering the reason behind such a spike can be tricky.
The first sign of trouble came last Friday, a couple of days after the Christmas holiday.
St. Paul police Sgt. Jamie Sipes said a computer database that maps suspected overdoses sent an alert to officers signaling an increase. The St. Paul Police Department has been using the tool for about a year through the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program.
"It allows us to real-time report overdoses then track those overdoses to see when we have what we call a spike — a spike would be something above, I hate to say normal, but above the numbers that we typically see,” Sipes said.
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More than seven overdoses in a day would signal a spike for St. Paul — and since Dec. 27, there have been 34 suspected overdoses, two of them fatal.
But connecting the dots on the map to make sense of what's happening can be difficult, especially since police aren’t aware of all overdose cases.
"If they are transported to the hospital, because of HIPAA laws, we don't find out a lot of information about that situation," Sipes said, referring to the law that shields patient information from the public.
He said most of the cases involved either counterfeit Xanax, a prescription anti-anxiety drug, or heroin. Many of the suspected overdoses required numerous doses of Narcan, also known by the generic name naloxone. It's a medication that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose. Almost 50,000 people die each year by opioid overdoses in the United States.
The most recent suspected overdoses in St. Paul reported to police occurred all across the city. Sipes said that makes it harder to uncover a connection.
St. Paul-Ramsey County Public Health Center has been running the Syringe Services Program for about a year and a half in downtown St. Paul. It’s part of a state program meant to give people clean supplies to use in order to prevent the spread of infectious diseases like HIV and hepatitis C.
Hilary Zander, who works with the county program, said it has coincided with an increase in fentanyl popping up on the streets. Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.
Zander said while her clinic hasn't seen any drastic changes in the number of patients in the last week, their stories often shine a light on these changes.
"Probably even within the last year, there's been an increase of fentanyl on the streets and we've heard more and more about it in the last several months from clients coming in here,” she said. “So, we know that fentanyl is in heroin, meth, cocaine, pills and everything."
Sgt. Sipes said this week's suspected overdose cases warrant the highest level of concern and action. He said the department is working with area hospitals and community-based resource groups to try to figure out what’s going on.
While one goal is to try to find suppliers of counterfeit and synthetic drugs, Sipes said his most important aim is to spread the word so that people can protect themselves and their loved ones.
He said Minnesota's good Samaritan law states that a person acting in good faith who seeks medical assistance for another person experiencing a drug-related overdose may not be charged or prosecuted for possession, sharing or use of a controlled substance.
“That should be the last thing on your mind, we are concentrating on community health and wellness and are less concerned with making a narcotics arrest," Sipes said.