Preliminary statewide data shows a decrease in overall drug overdose deaths in Minnesota, with deaths dropping 17 percent from 733 in 2017 to 607 in 2018.

While the news is promising, overdose rates remain at historic highs and indicate the amount of work still needed in prevention and treatment of substance use disorder.

Chief drivers were decreases in heroin deaths and deaths that involved prescription opioids.

All opioid deaths declined 22 percent from 422 in 2017 to 331 in 2018. There was a 32 percent decrease in prescription opioid-involved deaths from 195 in 2017 to 134 in 2018. Heroin deaths decreased 23 percent from 111 in 2017 to 85 in 2018. The preliminary data released by the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) shows deaths related to synthetic opioids, primarily illicitly manufactured fentanyl, continued to increase.

A vast majority of the synthetic opioid deaths involved fentanyl. Of the 195 deaths, 184 (94 percent) had fentanyl listed as contributing to the death on the death certificate. Synthetic opioids are now involved in the greatest number of overdose deaths for all drugs, surpassing commonly prescribed opioids.

“It’s encouraging to see this turnaround in the trend in 2018 as Minnesota has implemented a broad range of efforts to prevent opioid misuse and combat the overdose crisis,” said Jan Malcolm, Minnesota commissioner of health. “This is good news, but we want to emphasize that this is still preliminary data.” 

According to Malcolm, “overdose deaths continue to remain at historic highs. There is still much work that needs to be done to end this crisis and mitigate its effects.”

This decrease is just the second one seen since 2000 in a rising trend of opioid involved deaths, if the preliminary data does not change substantially. MDH’s final drug overdose numbers tend to increase as the health department receives additional death certificates for Minnesota residents who died of opioid-involved overdoses in other states.

For example, last year Minnesota’s preliminary count rose from 694 in May to 733 in the fall. Paralleling the drop in opioid involved deaths, non-fatal emergency department visits for opioid-involved overdoses remained stable from 2,037 in 2017 to 1,946 in 2018.

There were also neutral or positive trends related to non-opioid overdose deaths.

• Psychostimulant-involved (e.g., meth-amphetamine) deaths remained level from 2017 to 2018 (161 deaths).

• Benzodiazepine-involved deaths decreased 29 percent from 2017 to 2018 (65 deaths), continuing the downward trend.

• Cocaine-involved deaths also decreased 25 percent from 2017 to 2018 (51 deaths).

Data contained within this report is preliminary and may change as they are finalized. A final report is anticipated this fall.

Minnesota has several initiatives under way to address opioid misuse, such as increasing access to the overdose-reversal drug naloxone (brand name Narcan®). The state’s opioid prescribing work group created opioid prescribing guidelines for Minnesota.

More than 16,000 health care providers serving Minnesotans on Medicaid and MinnesotaCare are receiving reports comparing their opioid prescribing rates to those of their peers.

Additionally, an upgrade of the Minnesota prescription monitoring program will include alerts for prescribers about patients who are potentially misusing opioids.

The Minnesota Department of Human Services will also soon release state opioid response grants of $8.87 million per year for two years, which will fund naloxone distribution, expand treatment re-sources including medication assisted treatment and work to build the treatment workforce.

Tony Lourey, human services commissioner, recognized the positive trend, but he believes more needs to be done.

“Minnesota is working to end the opioid crisis by investing in a range of prevention, emergency response, treatment and recovery strategies,” Lourey said. “The decrease we’re seeing in opioid deaths tells us our approach is the right one. “We must continue to help those who are struggling with addiction and stop the damaging effects illicit opioid use has on people, families and communities.”

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) established the Minnesota Anti-Heroin task force in 2018 to help local agencies address the heroin crisis.

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