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Minnesota reports record drug overdose deaths in 2021

Last year had twice as many deaths as the state saw 10 years ago, and numbers have climbed significantly since 2018 when there were just over 600.

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ST. PAUL — Minnesota saw a record number of drug overdose deaths in 2021, with most of the fatalities associated with the powerful synthetic opioid painkiller fentanyl.

With more than 1,286 overdose deaths, 2021 saw a 22% increase from 2020, the Minnesota Department of Health said in a report released Thursday, July 14. Last year had twice as many deaths as the state saw 10 years ago, and numbers have climbed significantly since 2018 when there were just over 600.

Health Commissioner Jan Malcolm called the trend alarming but said there are steps the state can take including expanding access to overdose-reversing medications such as naloxone.

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Minnesota is not alone — overdose deaths have soared across the U.S. in recent years, particularly after the COVID-19 pandemic took hold. Nationally, overdose deaths topped 100,000 last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly double the number reported in 2019.

“Substance use disorder grows out of a context,” said Wendy Jones, executive director of Minnesota Recovery Connection, an organization that helps people suffering from addiction across the state. “The context of our world right now is challenging for everyone. Even those who aren’t predisposed to a substance use disorder.”

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Beyond the trials many have faced over the last few years, there has also been a shift to illicit rather than prescription drug abuse, opening the possibility for more harm, Jones said.

Often illicit drugs can be laced with fentanyl, which has become more common in many street drugs over the past decade and has been attributed to a national surge in overdose deaths. The synthetic opioid pain killer is up to 50 times stronger than heroin and a dose as small as 2 milligrams can be lethal in an adult.

In 2020 there were 560 fentanyl-related overdose deaths. In 2021 that number grew to 834.

Health officials recommend drug users obtain fentanyl test strips and carry naloxone, a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose. Minnesota Recovery Connection offers test strips and naloxone to drug users as part of its harm reduction efforts.

Deaths from overdoses have roughly doubled since 2011 in both Greater Minnesota and the Twin Cities metropolitan area, according to state data. Though in 2021, Greater Minnesota saw a 23% increase in deaths from 2020 — a slightly higher increase than the seven metro counties which saw a 20% increase. It was the first time Greater Minnesota outpaced the metro since 2014, officials said.

Jones said it can be harder for people with substance use disorders to access treatment in the state's rural areas, particularly in western Minnesota.

While the 2021 deaths were in large part due to opioids, Minnesota saw large increases from 2020 for several stimulant drugs like cocaine and meth, according to the report. The number of opioid deaths increased 35%, while cocaine deaths were up 85%.

Meanwhile, the number of deaths from benzodiazepines, commonly prescribed as anti-anxiety medications such as Xanax or Valium, was down 19%.

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